Review: This Life 1×1 (Canada: CBC)

All the fun of terminal cancer


In Canada: Mondays, 9pm, CBC

There are certain themes for drama that are quite hard to base a series around, for the simple reason that they aren’t really very enjoyable. Some ideas, particularly the more escapist ones divorced from real life, are fun to start with and it’s up to the programme makers to see if they can make them less fun (eg travelling through space and time with an ancient alien in a police box that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside); other ideas, particularly those close to home, are miserable and it’s up to the programme makers to see if they can somehow entice viewers to watch.

Cancer’s one of those topics that really has to woo viewers. If you don’t believe me, try listening to one of the current crop of interviews with Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore as they try to explain how much buddy-buddy fun and ‘girls night out’ Miss You Already is, despite being about breast cancer.

Canada’s This Life suffers from a similar problem. An adaptation not of the iconic 90s BBC Two show but of ICI Radio-Canada Télé’s French-language show Nouvelle Addresse, it sees Torri Higginson (Stargate Atlantis) playing a 40-something single mother who writes a popular newspaper column about being a 40-something single mother (what’s up with all the heroic 40-something parental newspaper columnists in the colonies, by the way?). 

She’s a bit dull and consumed with her family, rather than herself, as younger, free spirited sister Lauren Lee Smith (The L Word, CSI, Good Dog, Mutant X, The Listener) is happy to point out to her. So she decides to carpe diem, perhaps even go out with that new high school principal who seems to be into her (Shawn Doyle from Endgame). 

Except then she discovers that the cancer that she’d thought had gone away six months earlier has returned, and this time it’s terminal. She has less than a year to live. Now she needs to prepare her kids for when she’s not around, while deciding how she’s going to spend her final year on Earth.

Want to watch it yet? Of course you don’t. It sounds miserable. And often it is. You’d practically have to be inhuman not to be weeping buckets when Higginson gets her diagnosis and prognosis.

This Life attempts to make itself more palatable in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives us Lauren Lee Smith. She boxes in her spare time and does the Walk of Shame so regularly, she even has spare dresses in her office. She’s even toying with having a regular threesome with her latest one-night stand and his girlfriend.

Then there’s Higginson’s teenage children, who have their own things going on, involving boyfriends and girlfriends (or lack thereof), school work, squabbling, etc.

Still not persuaded? 

Fair enough. None of that is really that appealing or as fun as it thinks it is, either. Neither does This Life really establish in this first episode why you’d want to watch a show that ultimately is going to be about someone slowly and painfully dying, leaving her children alone. After depicting Higginson wanting to seize the day before she finds out her cancer is back, and then taking the ‘gut punch’ of the episode title that stops these plans in her tracks, it’s unclear if she’s going to properly seize the day for the rest of the series or simply start going to lots of lawyers and investment brokers to try to establish a legacy for her kids.

Maybe it’ll be uplifting, maybe it’ll be depressing, but given Nouvelle Addresse has lasted three seasons, I’ll bet on option one. This Life also has a strong cast, with Higginson particularly good, and some good direction.

It’s just it’s a programme about someone dying of cancer, without much to relieve the pain. And that could be too close too home for a lot of people.