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john doyle

In this age of so much good and great television drama, when a person is seriously stretched trying to keep up, what has CBC gone and done? It has made an adaptation of the popular and acclaimed Radio-Canada series Nouvelle adresse. This, it turns out, is a very smart move.

The expansive promotional campaign for This Life (CBC, 9 p.m.) might give you the impression, as it did me, that it's a Canadian version of Parenthood. That is, an angsty drama-comedy about family dynamics that occasionally turns mawkish.

This Life is not as pedestrian as most U.S. network dramas that focus on feisty, fractious families. It is way more substantial than that. There is deftness to it, a rhythm that is close to hypnotic in the first few episodes. It is an emotionally powerful drama that is very rich in small, memorable moments of observational humour and pathos. It's a soap opera of sorts, but here's the thing – it's about death.

It starts with bad news. A woman, Natalie Lawson (Torri Higginson), is told her cancer has returned. It is a devastating moment but the show doesn't linger on it. We are taken back a few weeks in time to get to know Natalie and her family. She's a columnist for an English-language newspaper in Montreal, a single mother living a very comfortable bourgeois existence.

We see her at home with her typically spiky-toned adolescent kids. There's a family reunion. The upshot of all of this is a portrait of niceness. We get the idea, told to us too plainly, that Natalie has devoted herself to raising her kids and being sensible. It's time she indulged herself, grew out of the domestic shell she's created and expanded her horizons.

A lot of the push for Natalie to change comes from her sister Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith, who is wonderful), whom we first encounter when she's in some guy's house, getting out of bed. It is not giving too much away to say that Maggie is caught in a very tricky situation with the guy and his girlfriend almost immediately. Other things happen on that front which deliver, as they are meant to, a dollop of spice into everyone's bourgeois existence.

As Natalie tells Maggie, she's 30 and living like a 20-year-old. The point is that Maggie's freewheeling, irresponsible way of life would normally be condemned by sensible, responsible people. But, you know, suppose you didn't have long to live – then would you want to indulge in being deeply irresponsible for a while?

At another point in the opening hour, the show's theme is delivered to us. Natalie and her daughter have a conversation in the car about, you know, life. The daughter expresses the view that she's been disappointed to learn that life isn't always fair. Natalie acknowledges the truth of this but adds life can also be wonderful.

The wonderful life we see unfolding around Natalie includes the tribulations of teenagers in love, the anger of a neighbour who finds out her husband is cheating and a touch of middle-aged romance, in the person the school principal (Shawn Doyle), who takes a shine to Natalie.

This Life is touching, humorous and admirable in so many ways. It is delightful middlebrow TV entertainment. But not quite as insightful as it might lead you to believe.

Adapted by Michael MacLennan from the Radio-Canada series – which is still going strong – it is filled with fine performances. Higginson does a remarkable job as Natalie. No one who works for a newspaper can accept as authentic the depiction of the main character's job as columnist, but the core of This Life touches upon a great deal more than that. It takes a while before the impact of Natalie's terminal disease emerges and, even then, there is deft drollery in the way it's handled.

With a sprawling cast and a kernel issue about the horrifying prospect of being a given a medical death sentence, the rhythm is essential to keeping This Life afloat as entertainment worth watching. It has many familiar flourishes – the grown-ups are "faux adults" and the young are wise; the tincture of true romance comes late in life and, when Natalie's brother is finally introduced, there is a little too much emphasis on being rebellious in adulthood.

There are few enough Canadian dramas that don't amount to a generic cop show or medical show. This Life is a very special drama – beautifully done and, yes, highly recommended.