I unwillingly and accidentally became a Chasing Life fan. ABC Family worked their scheduling magic and ran Chasing Life’s freshman season after my favorite network show Pretty Little Liars—a surefire way to get someone hooked. While I didn’t need any more shows to add to my already burgeoning watch-list, I couldn’t help but love the characters and find myself connecting with April’s “mid-twenties, still living at home, trying to figure out what her career dream is” persona. It was fun to have a TV show about characters actually my age and in a similar post-graduate situation rather than the perpetual “we’re still in high-school even though it’s been 6 years” *cough*PrettyLittleLiars*cough* that ABC Family specializes in.
But even though the storyline and characters seemed to be a little more grown-up, I was still skeptical when watching those first few trailers because John Green’s mega-hit book turned blockbuster The Fault in Our Stars had just debuted theaters that summer, and it felt like everyone was jumping on the cancer bandwagon (just as it feels like everyone’s on the transgender wagon right now). But cancer is a serious thing. I didn’t want to support a show that was turning a serious subject into a cash cow.
And I felt that way until I actually watched the show. It took a few episodes as the main character, April, isn’t exactly likable right off the bat (she’s perfectionism magnified) and there’s nothing exciting that happens plot-wise (she’s diagnosed with cancer, big surprise). At first glance the characters appear stereotypical—the bratty younger sister, the overprotective mom, the recently-passed perfect father, the estranged uncle, the perfect love-interest, the bubbly best-friend, and later, the rich, bad boy with a (cancer) death-sentence. Actually April’s snarky grandmother appears to be the only unique and likeable character! But this is an illusion. As April’s cancer story unfolds—her choices as to who to tell and not tell and her decisions regarding her job and health—so too do the characters. We come to see that Brenna is not just a bratty younger sister, she’s a fiercely loyal sibling and much more mature and smart than she first appears. We find the estranged uncle to be a strong advocate for April’s health and a great model of forgiveness. And a fan-favorite, Leo, the rich, bad boy turns out to be a personal make-a-wish for adults and the greatest challenge to make April live in the moment (something as a perfectionist myself, I can attest is difficult to do).
I really felt like Chasing Life hit its stride in its sophomore season though. As April’s health outlook appeared more and more grim, we explored what it means to live fully and to grieve and to follow your dreams. April’s cancer became a looming backdrop for a young woman having to really live because she didn’t know how much time she had left. It meant throwing caution to the wind on things that we millenials are so particular about right now. It meant getting married to a man she’d only known for a few months. It meant making drastic and risky health decisions. It meant quitting a stable job to pursue a long-buried dream.
It also meant as viewers we didn’t always like or agree with April’s decisions, but we can’t fault her for them because it is her life. And just as she had to realize she couldn’t let other’s impressions and expectations of her control her life, as viewers we have to learn to respect her (aka the writer’s decisions). But we don’t ever want to give up hope. That’s what the title is about, right? “Chasing life?” It seems to be slipping away from her, but she’s running, desperately trying to catch that train.
Season two ended in a bittersweet way with April announcing that she was ready to die. That she’d fought and now she was done. It was heart wrenching and confusing because “NO APRIL YOU CANNOT JUST LIE DOWN AND DIE IN ITALY!” And then just a few days later, it’s announced that Chasing Life has been canceled. And you CAN’T cancel a show about cancer. Not without her beating cancer or dying trying. Unfortunately, with the way season 2 ends, we’re left believing that April’s story ends in the latter outcome. Which for all the trials she’s been able to overcome so far (e.g. finding out her father had a secret family, her boyfriend dumping her when he found out she had cancer and lied to him about it, her almost-new-boyfriend being in a coma for months, her husband dying after only a month of marriage, finding out her father had ALS and didn’t die in car accident but actually intentionally wrecked his car and blackmailed his brother into covering it up) seems like a poor excuse for an ending. Not that she has to have a happy ending. I mean, cancer is real life. And cancer doesn’t always have a happy ending. Well…real life rarely has a happy ending. But there’s something more final and gut wrenching about canceling a show about cancer than shows with other plots and topics. We can imagine the characters going on and overcoming whatever obstacle they faced last because usually their troubles are just over the line of reality. But cancer isn’t. Cancer is reality. April’s struggle is real life dramatized.
So I understand the outcry that Chasing Life fans have at the announcement of the series’ cancellation. It feels like more of a lack of faith in April’s survival than a strategic choice based on ratings. We want April to live! And it’s a hard thing to believe in when even the network doesn’t seem to have hope.