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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Chasing Life’: an empowering perspective on life, love and disease

Published: August 22, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Chronic disease is a topic that can evoke feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and immense sadness. In countless movies and books, when someone is diagnosed with such a disease, the character typically succumbs to feelings of depression and pessimism, faced with low odds of survival and daunting treatments. However, ABC Family’s new series “Chasing Life,” which premiered this summer, takes a different and invigorating approach to living life with cancer.

In “Chasing Life,” the life of the 24-year-old journalist April Carver (Italia Ricci) unravels when she finds out that she has leukemia. Even though cancer is a large part of April’s life, the great thing about this show is that it is not all about cancer. April is a very independent and determined woman. In the show, her family is still recovering emotionally from her father’s tragic car accident. Upon learning her diagnosis, she decides to deal with her cancer by herself, rather than involving her loved ones. At the same time, she begins dating her co-worker Dominic (Richard Brancatisano), who plays the role of a sweet and loving boyfriend and remarks repeatedly that he dislikes drama in relationships, making April ambivalent about sharing her diagnosis.

April’s delicate family is facing even more stressful issues. April’s mother, Sara (Mary Page Keller), is still reeling from her late husband’s death and struggles with moving on and dating. She does not know how to cope with her second daughter, Brenna’s (Haley Ramm), rebellious and reclusive behavior (that includes skipping school, drinking and taking a job at a tattoo parlor). Most of the time, April’s grandmother (Rebecca Schull) seems to hold the family together with her reassuring disposition, warmth and humor. The estranged Uncle George (Steven Weber) is also in the picture. He initially diagnoses April with cancer, and acts as her oncologist for some time. He is the voice of reason for April, and eventually holds an intervention to force her to tell her family she has cancer. Although Weber’s acting is sometimes a bit lackluster, Keller, Ramm and Schull execute their roles superbly.

April’s mother has an understandably intense reaction to her daughter’s news, which puts more stress on April and hinders her ability to cope with her cancer. Keller plays the role of a loving, concerned and sometimes overbearing mother excellently. Ramm exudes moodiness and angst as a result of the change in her family after her father’s death. She is the first in her family to find out about April’s cancer and is extremely supportive and affectionate. As well as dealing with her sister’s diagnosis, she also explores her sexuality on the show. She begins dating both her boss, Kieran (Augusto Aguilera), and her female friend Greer (Gracie Dzienny). Ramm does a fantastic job in all of these roles, as if she were made for it.

Another conflict in the show is that April finds out a secret about her late father that drastically changes how she views her family. Luckily, April’s best friend, Beth (Aisha Dee), is there by her side every step of the way to support April and help her retain her sense of self during this tumultuous time. Dee is an exceptional actress, playing a quirky, sassy and hilarious Australian who oozes a massive amount of compassion and love for April and her family. She is a foil to April’s uptight and intense personality, demonstrating a sense of ease and always laughing. She is a phenomenal asset to the show.

A vital element of this show that has become quite prevalent in the past several episodes is the love triangle between April, Dominic and Leo. This triangle creates conflict and emotional depth in the plotline, but also serves as an important metaphor. Ever since April discovered that she has cancer, she has struggled between two extremes: a desperate desire to remain “normal” and almost deny her disease, and to fit into an environment where she can find support and empathy for cancer. Dominic is representative of April’s healthy life that she yearns for, and Leo is a rebellious bad boy who lives for an adrenaline rush; he brings out the best in April by daring her to let loose and do things that add meaning and excitement to her life. At the same time, he understands what April is struggling with because of her illness and can support her. This juxtaposition is a lens that helps the audience gain a glimpse of the internal conflict April is struggling with, on a romantic and a subconscious level.

“Chasing Life” is an invigorating series that truly is a novelty among other competitors. It explores a slew of important and timely issues such as sexuality, hook-up culture and family problems—a risk not all shows take. The writing is phenomenal because it illustrates so many elements of April’s unusually strong character, while still feeling real to its viewers. At the heart of it all, April is just a young woman who is trying to succeed professionally, have a normal relationship and live the life of a carefree young adult. She somehow juggles triumphing at work while caring for her fragile family, maintaining a social life and trying to treat her cancer.

The show’s main purpose is not to evoke sympathy for a young woman and her heartbreaking diagnosis. The strongest themes in the show are resilience, optimism and can-do attitude—a refreshing and important message to viewers of all ages. There has been no news of a renewal for a second season, but viewers can expect a mid-season finale of “Chasing Life” in December.