Cancer and Christmas aren't the likeliest of pairs - but most shows aren't ABC Family's Chasing Life, are they?
Before the second half of Chasing Life Season 1 kicks off next month, we'll receive a holiday special tonight that picks up with April still in the hospital towards the end of her chemo treatment.
However, with her other set of grandparents (Marion Ross and Ed Asner) in town for a visit and the usual family complications, it's definitely not the cheeriest time to instill a little holiday cheer.
That said, the episode has all the elements that will make you fall in love with this show, which may have a dark subject matter at its center but has proven that it can balance that seriousness with humor, fun and some heartfelt moments we all want in a drama.
Series creator Patrick Sean Smith told me last week all about the holiday episode and teased what we'll be seeing in the next half of the first season. Let's see what he had to say...
TV Fanatic: In the timeline of the show it’s not exactly Christmas time, correct?
Patrick Sean Smith: Correct. We basically pick up exactly where we left off with April in the hospital, which calendar-wise was May, so the more we thought about Christmas and just what April was going through emotionally…Christmas is such a wonderful, happy time and provides so many uplifting memories that we came up with the idea that it’s recreating the holiday for her while she’s going through a very dramatic loss of her hair and continuing through to the end of her chemo, her first half of chemo.
TVF: You’ve done such a good job through the first half of the season with keeping the show light and fun despite the subject matter. Bringing in a Christmas element, was it a challenge at all?
PSS: It was good in that we’re always trying to find something to counterbalance the dark and that’s where the lightness comes in so that’s where Christmas felt like a great opportunity to see the family dynamic and also its dysfunction and that’s typically what the holidays are about, right? So it was a good opportunity to introduce [April’s] other set of grandparents who we hadn’t met up to this point and if felt organic at that time that they would come out while she was in the hospital to see her.
But casting the actors that we did who are just amazing but also funny also helped kind of keep everything a little more upbeat and they were amazing. Marian Ross and Ed Asner, they were both incredible. He was kind of grumpy in a funny way and the second I met her I was like ‘you’re like my mom, you’re amazing.’ She’s just inherently so maternal but she’s in her 80s and was so aware of television and what’s out there today and just made these incredibly astute observations about TV.
She gave me one of the biggest compliments I think I’ve ever received, which was she mentioned that she’d been on Brothers and Sisters before and that she loved Parenthood and she talked about how she has a deep appreciation for more character storytelling, which she felt wasn’t on TV. She compared us to Brothers and Sisters and Parenthood and that’s why she did the show. That’s a big feather in my cap that I’m going to keep for a really long time.
TVF: We’ve been talking about April losing her hair since the show started. Talk about what we’ll see in this episode.
PSS: I feel like when we started talking about April losing her hair…when we pick up in season 1B, we pick up four months after this time so she is kind of dealing with her hair growing back so we actually never really intended on dealing directly with her hair loss. I was concerned about it feeling too familiar. You see the scenes of the characters looking in the mirror and having this big, dramatic moment and this big moment of empowerment.
I was more interested in the flipside of that, which is it’s really, really hard and wanting to see her gradually come to terms with this and to be there. I feel like once we kind of found a lighter way to approach it but in a way that was still emotional, then it started to get really exciting. But we talked a lot about kind of how difficult that is for a person, how difficult it is for a woman to lose her hair and it was a very touching storyline I think.
TVF: So far in the series, we’ve seen Brenna deal with her sexuality and she almost has to come out all over again, this time with her grandparents.
PSS: Right. We kind of had the luxury with Emma [April’s grandmother] that she’s so open minded and that she’s so liberal and funny and kind of cool so it felt like a great opportunity to kind of bring her other set of grandparents in to have her navigate that experience with them.
It was also nice because so much of Brenna’s journey in the series is informed by April’s illness and the idea that April was always kind of the one who tries to keep the peace all the time. It felt like another great opportunity to see Brenna struggling to step up to be April in her absence while dealing with this personal quandary of not only kind of coming out to your grandparents but coming out as bisexual [and also] coming out as somebody who also doesn’t like labels. It’s not so black and white and when you sit down with people of a different generation that’s just kind of like this is just going to take too long and sounds exhausting and do I really want to do this?
TVF: In the series launch, George was kind of the outsider and even the viewers didn’t trust him and didn’t necessarily like him but now that he and Sara are kind of inching back towards each other can you talk about where that’s going?
PSS: In the next batch of episodes we explore their relationship farther. We get a clearer sense of what their backstory was and what their emotions towards each other are. We also explore the conflict that that would bring into the family. They’re such a family of secrets but at the same time they made the joke in the finale, if we started dating what would the girls call you? Uncle stepdad. They’re aware of that and they’re sensitive towards that. They’re sensitive about it for the sake of the family but they find themselves in another situation of wanting to protect them from this but also then creating a secret about it. So it’s definitely going to have some weight in the next 10 and also force them to make some pretty big decisions, which I’ll leave at that.
TVF: The love triangle of April, Leo and Dominic is one that drives a lot of the show but talk about what we’ll see in the holiday episode.
PSS: Yeah. I mean we end this holiday episode with a much more definitive cliffhanger on the outcome of Leo’s surgery…but then we start 1B with [April] returning to work and it’s four months later but Dominic is still hurting from the betrayal and they have to work together so it’s really these two characters that came together through this shared experience and now the shared experience is just causing even more pain in the aftermath of their breakup. I think that plays heavily through this 10 and something that forces them to really reevaluate their relationship, their friendship, their potential for romance in the future. I think that plays heavily in this next 10 for sure.
TVF: How are you feeling about the fan reaction for the show?
PSS: I would love for more people to watch the show. I think we now have the 10 episodes to show who we are and what we intend to do and what we aim to do in every episode. I think there’s an unfortunate tendency to compare a new show to other shows. We’re not The Big C and we’re not Red Band [Society]. We’ve been picked up for a second season and we’re going to keep delivering more episodes about April Parker’s life and her friends and her relationships and that’s what our show is.
I would love for more people to give us a shot. That’s kind of what I felt like with this holiday episode that it’s a great example of the balance that we do every week that we’re not aiming to make the people feel depressed, we’re aiming to make them feel, which I think is something that doesn’t happen a lot on television. I’m proud of the work we’re doing and I’m proud of the fans that we have. I think we could appeal to a lot more people if they just give us a shot.
Chasing Life's holiday episode airs Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC Family. New episodes begin airing January 19 on ABC Family.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.