As the fall television season continues to get underway CBC is hoping viewers will fall in love with the Lawson family on its new drama This Life. The character-driven series premieres Monday, October 5 at 9 p.m. and is an adaptation of the Radio-Canada drama Nouvelle adresse. Torri Higginson stars in the 10-part series as Natalie Lawson, a single mother who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and must prepare herself and her family for her death. Viewers will also be introduced to Natalie’s three teenage children, her parents (Peter MacNeill and Janet-Laine Green), two brothers (Rick Roberts and Kristopher Turner) and sister (Lauren Lee Smith).
For a more complete look at the challenges of making a successful adaptation, balancing light moments with what could be a depressing topic and a look at what’s to come in This Life’s first season, The TV Junkies spoke with showrunner Joseph Kay (Bomb Girls). Kay talked about the challenges involved for himself as a first time showrunner, as well as writing for a large ensemble cast.
The TV Junkies: This Life is an adaptation, how difficult is it to take a story that’s been successfully done and put your own twist on it?
Joseph Kay: It’s a challenge but it’s a pretty organic challenge for us. We made some decisions early on about little things that we knew we’d do differently that in the beginning are just little choices–a character does a different thing for a living or a character has a bit of a different backstory–but as you get deeper into the serialized story they organically become their own thing because you’re following the character.
We have a great advantage with the adaptation because the core character’s story is very similar, so to be able to draw from that and have access to the person who made that–he was involved and we could talk to him about what worked, what didn’t work, what he would do differently and that’s been amazing. You can see into the future a little bit.
TTVJ: One of the similarities between This Life and Nouvelle adresse is that they both shoot in Montreal. How important was it to keep the city a central character? JK: For me it was that we were trying to be emotionally honest with the characters and where they are in their lives emotionally, so it would suck if we had to pretend to be somewhere where we weren’t. We don’t do it in a big way. We have the characters, if they are out in public and have to engage the city, we do it in a little way to be reflective of what it would be like for an Anglo person living in a French city. I wouldn’t say we get into the politics of it or anything. We try to be effortlessly authentic about it. I think it’s good because we want it to feel real.
TTVJ: You’ve worked as a writer and producer on other shows such as Bomb Girls, but what’s the transition for you been like personally in taking on the role of showrunner for the first time?
JK: It’s a huge difference from being a writer to being a showrunner. I’ve been lucky in the jobs I’ve had as a writer, I’ve often been on set and involved in a production capacity, and that’s the stuff you need to do to learn the showrunner job. I would say the hardest thing is balancing everything all at the same time. We’re still writing the second half of the season while getting ready to shoot the first half of the season. It’s always like a different part of your brain working on something else and it’s kind of challenge to keep it going. I think it’s the kind of thing where you just have to do it. It’s a feet first thing.
TTVJ:In a world where there’s so much TV for viewers to choose from, was there any worry about doing such a character-driven, family drama that didn’t have some fancy gimmick?
JK: I certainly thought about that. I think the good thing about there being so much out there is we have developed into where everybody finds their thing. There’s a niche for everything. So having given thought to that question a long time ago, we just thought we can’t make the show into something that it isn’t. It just is the thing that it is and if it’s going to work it has to work because you believe the characters and you identify with the family, and see yourself as one of them. You see somebody you know as one of them, or all of them, and full scale embrace that. If it can be that thing in its truest form, then the audience that exists for it will find it.
TTVJ: This Life is show about cancer, and while it is realistic, it’s far from depressing to watch. How important is it for you to make sure the show still has moments of levity and gives viewers some good laughs?
JK: Really, really important because we know that it’s just like what you said, where it could be just the most awkward affair and who would want to watch that? So we tried really hard to lighten all moments and build in enough other stuff, whether it’s purely funny stuff, or whether its dramatic stuff on another level, to balance that. Even in the stuff that deals with Torri’s character and even the stuff that’s purely sad, trying to find the moments of humour in that because we talk about how it all comes from the same emotional place. It’s really important to find that balance and stay in that balance so we don’t make people cry all the time.
TTVJ: From what we’ve seen so far, you guys do a really good job at fleshing out all the characters and their worlds. How do you go about balancing such a large ensemble and making sure each character is given their due?
JK: It’s hard. Really, really hard. You don’t want to short anybody. We’ve built around this idea where she finds out that she’s dying and wonders if she’s lived well. Everybody has that feeling, whether they are 12 or 80, so that just applies to all the stories whether you know if she’s dying or not. It’s hard to balance it, but we were encouraged to take an organic approach to doing that. It wasn’t necessary to tell you a deep story about every character in every episode. So we can get really into the Oliver character [Kristopher Turner] in a couple episodes and then maybe step back and let another story rise up to the forefront because there are so many characters. So it is a challenge, but also kind of amazing that it can hold because then we don’t have to be in cancer territory all of the time.
TTVJ: Can you preview some of the struggles Natalie will face this season, not only with her disease but in her personal life as well?
JK: Her initial struggles throughout the first season are really to face it. To face it on an emotional level and what does it mean for her? How does she tell her kids and when she does what is the fallout from that? Also the pragmatic question of ‘What do I do because I know this is happening to me, and I have to make arrangements for it while I’m still totally healthy, other than the fact that I know this is going on? How do I do that?’ That’s a really big, difficult question and it’s both pragmatic but really emotional for her all the time. It’s like going through the five stages of grieving all at the same time, all out of order and trying to make sense of it emotionally. ‘How do I make sure my life is ready for this?’
Are you excited to check out This Life? Sound off in the comments below and take another look at the series here:
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.