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Radio's Starring Role on New TV Series "Life Unexpected"

Portland DJ Cate of K-100

Last night I checked out the premiere of a new television series on the CW called Life Unexpected, largely because one of the main characters is a radio DJ. Additionally, it’s a teen-centric drama, so right off the bat the show is hitting at my pop cultural sweet spots.

[If you’re planning to watch the show and haven’t caught the first episode yet, then you may want to read this post later, as I reveal plot details below.]

The show opens with a shot of VU meters ticking away as we hear the sounds of a morning talk radio show in Portland, Oregon.

We eventually see the innards of the studio and get to spy on DJs Cate (played by Shiri Appleby of the long-departed teen show Roswell) and Ryan (Dawson Creek‘s Kerr Smith), as they entertain listeners with their banter about relationships and marriage. Interspersed with scenes of the studio are shots of teenage Lux listening to the show on her radio (see…teenagers really do still listen to terrestrial radio!) as she gets ready for her day.

We soon learn that nearly 16-year-old Lux is in foster care, and we watch her as she tracks down her birth father. In hopes of becoming an emancipated minor, she asks her newly-found dad Nate for details on her mother. She’s surprised to find out that it’s Cate, the host of her favorite radio show.

In an effort to get in touch with Cate, Nate calls in to the morning show and his call works to reveal the sordid details of his Zima-fueled hookup with DJ Cate back in high school. Embarrassed by the on-air revelations, Cate leaves the studio to meet Nate in the station parking lot where she ends up becoming reunited with her daughter Lux.

The family reunion is not without its drama and after some not-so-unexpected twists, we witness a touching scene that actually reveals the power of radio. Lux tells Cate,

“You don’t realize you were there. On the radio. When everything else in my life kept changing. I could count on you every day. People are just…so scared…to tell the truth…You…you just put it all out there. You say the truth.”

In the opening episode, Cate’s radio shtick is that she’s a commitment-phobic, cynical thirtysomething. She and her co-host relentlessly tease each other on-air while never revealing to listeners that they’ve been in a romantic relationship for 2 years. Yet by the end of the hour we see Cate taking Lux in to her home and accepting a marriage proposal from her radio show co-host Ryan. As clips from the upcoming episodes hint at; the morning talk show may end up being the place where Cate begins to reveal more and more personal truths.

It’s not surprising that often TV depictions of DJs are in the form of talk show hosts (vs. music DJs) since this can become an easy way for writers to reveal the feelings and motivations of their characters. We’ll have to wait and see if this particular glimpse of the radio world on Life Unexpected catches on with viewers. I’ll also be curious to see if radio retains its starring role as the series progresses.

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