'Life Sentence': TV Review

Light, fizzy and forgettable.
3/7/2018

Lucy Hale is perfectly cast in this trifle of a dramedy about a young woman who survives cancer and becomes a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl for her entire family.

The expression "Live like you were dying" was already a cliché before Tim McGraw made it a country song. But what if you lived like you were dying because you were actually dying, but then you weren't dying anymore? How do you go back to living like you're living?

That's the question at the heart of The CW's new melodramedy Life Sentence, which puts its theme in its title and then repeats that theme over and over again as it transitions from being a show about the highest of life-and-death stakes to being a show with stakes no higher than facing another day. Ultimately so light and fizzy as to barely register at all, the series is mostly a showcase for winsome and wide-eyed leading lady Lucy Hale, who may not be a perfect star for everything, but surely is a perfect star for this particular trifle.

Hale, who some viewers may remember from Pretty Little Liars and I remember from American Juniors, plays Stella Abbott, who has spent years knowing she was dying of cancer. With tragedy seemingly around every corner, Stella tried to make the most out of the brief window she had left and she's been encouraged and abetted by dad Paul (Dylan Walsh), mom Ida (Gillian Vigman), brother Aiden (Jayson Blair) and sister Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons), plus new husband Wes (Elliot Knight), whom she met and wed after a whirlwind fairy tale courtship in Paris. Then, in the first five minutes of the pilot, Stella gets the news: She's cured.

So…now what? Stella's entire family spent so many years concentrating on her that when she no longer needs concentrating on, it becomes clear that they've all neglected themselves. Ida's realizing she may love women. Aiden's realizing he mostly loves married women. Elizabeth hates her job and wants to be a writer. Your standard Cancer Girl movie finds the doomed protagonist teaching Ryan O'Neal or Keanu Reeves how to live. During her illness, though, Stella didn't do that. Now that she's healthy and basically unqualified to enter the workforce — dying does not afford one opportunities for college, internships or cultivating many skills, apparently — Stella decides the best thing she can do is enable her family. Basically, having not been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in near-death, she elects herself everybody's Manic Pixie Dream Girl in rebirth.

Were one to craft a cinematic Cancer Girl or a Manic Dream Girl in a Hollywood laboratory, you'd probably come out with something like Lucy Hale. Although Sweet November, the Charlize Theron version, is the main referenced Cancer Girl movie here, Hale is practically near-anime twins with Olivia Cooke from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and they bring many of the same assets to the table, starting with those huge, expressive eyes that twinkle in comedy and brim with tremulous tears in tragedy. Within the character's trademark fast-talking chirpiness, Hale has strong comic timing and engages in bits of amusing physical business gamely, while pilot director Lee Toland Krieger and subsequent helmers use her diminutive stature for additional sight gags. Credit series creators Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith with grounding Stella's more annoying traits — her self-obsession and non-stop babbling — in understandable character backstory so that while Stella might really get on your nerves if she were a person in the real world, she mostly doesn't on TV.

Life Sentence is much less effective in making one care what happens to Stella, and especially her family, now that their lives are starting over. It was around the second episode that I began to sense that maybe the Abbotts didn't so much put their lives on hold to support and coddle and enable Stella; maybe they were just dull to begin with and the show has no desire to cast any judgment on whether Aiden, with his love of married women, might just be a bad person or whether Paul or Ida might be at fault in their impending separation.

Everything these characters do is just "OK," because they are fundamentally "OK" and we know that everything that happens to them will be "OK" and that it will all be shot in a warm-but-generic Vancouver glow. Will immigration services suspect that Wes just married Stella for his green card? Probably! But we know he's a cast regular and they're in love! Will Ida and Paul have to sell the family house? Probably! But we know they're not going to find themselves living anywhere truly gritty or threatening or impoverished. It's easy to predict where Stella will eventually find herself working, and it's easy to predict the allegedly surprising relationships that might emerge between characters.

The CW sent out the first, second and then fourth episodes, and despite an absent episode, I didn't miss anything of real importance and I suspect you could probably skip every other episode right up until the finale — in which I assume Stella will be left awaiting news from a doctor on whether her cancer has returned. (Actually, that's too obvious. I think the penultimate episode will be the one ending with a cliffhanger about Stella's relapse and then in the finale, after she obsesses anxiously and reevaluates her new life for 40 minutes, she'll get a clean bill of health, only to have her relief soured when another member of the Abbott family gets diagnosed with a condition that will slightly inconvenience the family in a hypothetical second season. Prediction: Dad has eczema.)

Lyons and Blair are likably bland, while Walsh and Vigman are a bit more nuanced, but not distractingly so. The entire show has constructed a world of bland and interchangeable prettiness. It's a conspicuously white prettiness, with Knight and Carlos PenaVega as Elizabeth's husband serving as assimilated figures in the comforting sameness. It's no wonder they'd pin all their hopes on Stella.

Life Sentence comes from that vein of CW shows that echo programming from the old WB, sentimental and amusing dramedies that generally haven't succeeded. It is, in fact, mighty similar to No Tomorrow, which lasted one season. And it's tonally a bit like Privileged, which co-starred Hale and lasted one season. Life Sentence makes for a painless hour, and Hale occasionally elevates it to something more pleasurable. Just don't expect the title to be a long-term prognosis.

Cast: Lucy Hale, Elliot Knight, Dylan Walsh, Gillian Vigman, Jayson Blair, Brooke Lyons, Carlos PenaVega
Creators: Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)

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