Review: This Life has heart, humour … and no yelling

It’s hard to convey the tone of This Life in a quick recommendation to friends. I’ve resorted to: “It’s about a single mother with cancer, but it’s good.” And: “It’s like Parenthood without all the yelling.” It’s poignant and funny and warm, and the ensemble cast have their own storylines apart from the central fact that the central character explores what she wants from life after she’s been given a death sentence.

Based on the Radio-Canada series Nouvelle Adresse, This Life premieres tonight as CBC’s best new ratings hope this fall. It feels like a show that belongs on the public broadcaster while also feeling like a subtle move toward their cable-esque hopes. Less sharp right turn than a Strange Empire, more a curve toward complexity.

ThisLifeLawsonsThe pilot starts with single mother and newspaper columnist Natalie Lawson (Torri Higginson) finding out her cancer is back, and terminal. She’s reluctant to tell her children Caleb (James Wotherspoon), Emma (Stephanie Janusauskas) and Romy (Julia Scarlett Dan) and parents (Janet-Laine Green and Peter MacNeill). Younger sister Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith) is an unreliable confidante, spilling the news to siblings Matthew (Rick Roberts) and Oliver (Kristopher Turner) who rally around Natalie. Neighbour Danielle (Rachael Crawford) and Romy’s principal and Natalie’s new love interest Andrew (Shawn Doyle) round out the regular cast.

Developed by Michael MacLennan, the series is helmed by showrunner Joseph Kay who shows tremendous confidence in moving slowly through time and plot to linger on character. Natalie’s diagnosis slowly becomes known to some of her extended family, and the ripple effects on their lives is seen in poignant details, mostly the expressive faces of a wonderful cast.

I didn’t know of Higginson before seeing the first four episodes of the series, but she brings a warmth and natural ease to a difficult role. Natural is a word that kept popping into my mind, from the acting to the way the show is lit, and yet there’s a stylishness to the direction as well — a well-shot image at the end of the pilot is both beautiful and meaningful, for example.

Sometimes the diagnosis seems almost an afterthought to the characters in the expanding soap stories of the extended cast, and I’d find myself wondering if the reactions were too small, but then we’re hit with the quiet devastation unfolding, often beneath the surface.

Even Natalie’s story isn’t all about cancer. She’s a woman who becomes dimly aware before the prognosis that her life might not be the one she meant to lead, her identity and her writing wrapped around her children, her sister Maggie wondering if Natalie has lost herself.

Maggie herself is experimenting with sex and with being a more responsible adult, one of which tends to get in the way of the other.  The character sometimes feels like the familiar lost woman-child trope, the show teetering on judging her for her and allowing herself to own her sexuality, but Smith plays her with an awkward charm and awareness that feels fresh.

11-year-old Julia Scarlett Dan is fantastic, playing the troubled youngest child with an unaffected maturity, and there are wonderful performances from the seasoned professionals as well.

English audiences won’t likely be spoiled by foreknowledge of the French version — 19-2 in a similar position hasn’t seemed to suffer from spoilers – but it will be interesting to see if Kay and his writing team follow the same path as the original.

In a puzzling oddity of scheduling, the English and French versions appear to share a timeslot, meaning the devoted francophone audience may not have the opportunity to watch the remake live even out of curiosity.

If they did, they might find it equally puzzling that an unabashedly Montreal-set series, with French-language signs prominently displayed, is otherwise lacking evidence of French-speaking people . But the setting adds a unique visual element even if not all the cultural elements make it onscreen.

Quibble aside, This Life is a wonderfully chaotic family drama that will draw you in, quietly but firmly.

This Life airs Mondays at 9 on CBC.