Someday, Lucy Hale is probably going to star in a very good TV comedy. She may not be the lead, like she is the in the new CW series “Life Sentence,” playing Stella Abbott, a young woman with a new lease on life after a surprise revelation that her cancer is in remission. She may not be forced to deliver lengthy monologues about love and family and the thought of dying against the backdrop of a series that only seems marginally interested in any of those things. But at least in this theoretical yet-to-be-produced series, she won’t be one of the only redeeming parts of the show she’s in.
The most interesting layer of “Life Sentence” is that in a way, every member of Stella‘s family has been writing their own kind of TV show over the eight years that Stella was sick. They’ve written their own characters, played their own parts, and with this new diagnosis, their show has effectively been canceled. In flashes of inspiration, strain your eyes and “Life Sentence” becomes a show about people dealing with something crumbling, even when it comes in the wake of the best news possible.
Instead, “Life Sentence” mostly presents a group of individuals freed from the burden of caring for an ailing family member and each now feeling like they have license to be the star of their own movie. Stella’s sudden change in prognosis dovetails with her mother Ida (Gillian Vigman) embracing a life change of her own, effectively leaving her husband for longtime close family friend Poppy. Stella’s writer sister Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons) leans into a number of aspiring author cliches, all the while turning every conversation into an excuse to complain about how draining her own happy family is.
Stella’s father Paul (Dylan Walsh) is left with a distant soon-to-be-ex-wife, comforted only by the bland paternal platitudes he can offer his family. And the person on the receiving end of those gems like “This is your life. You only get one. And you’re throwin’ it away” and “That was one of the best days of my life”? Stella’s brother Aiden (Jayson Blair), an arrested development hormone monster whose sole defining characteristic is his ability to turn his lack of ambition into an inexplicable sexual magnetism.
It’s a shame that “Life Sentence” barely follows through on any of the promise of its opening three episodes. There’s some legitimately engaging drama in the story of a family finding real consequences in the aftermath of the most joyous turn of events imaginable. It teases a version of that show in its early going. When the Sara Bareilles songs get taken away, when the newly necessary barista job becomes less quirky, when the lavish Paris vacation is up and the bills come due, there’s a bit of momentary reckoning for an eight-year facade that the Abbotts have all put up.
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But conflict is never more than temporary in this Oregon community. Pregnant girlfriends disappear from view or worry after one simple conversation. Family arguments are resolved after a simple collective flashback. Sledgehammered holes in the living room wall simply exist in an unrepaired state. Every chance that “Life Sentence” has to really investigate the financial, psychological, or emotional consequences of a harrowing ordeal gets whisked away in favor of a speedy reconciliation set to the soothing sounds of an acoustic guitar.
One area where “Life Sentence” manages to salvage some recognizable human emotions is in its central marriage. Stella and her husband Wes (Elliot Knight) have to go through the bureaucratic pitfalls of being spouses from two different countries. (On top of being impossibly handsome, Wes is also British.) When the pair prep for an INS meeting to establish the legitimacy of their wedding, watching the two of them come to terms with how little they actually know each other is a rare moment of genuine humanity in what should be an overly human story at every turn. Together, Hale and Knight find a rare blend of chemistry and companionship for Stella and Wes, real anchors in a sea of faux turmoil.
Stella legitimately has to adjust to a new way of life because she’s been shielded from the alternative. Everyone else doesn’t really have an excuse. Hale manages to pull this off while keeping Stella’s renewed optimism from ringing false. She’s bright without being overly bubbly, persistent while being self-aware. The overall self-awareness of the show gets overindulgent at points — you can only make so many so many jokes about tired lesbian jokes before they become tired lesbian jokes all their own — but Hale and Knight sell as much of it as they possibly can.
The premise of “Life Sentence” puts it in an impossible bind from the start. Cancer is something that affects nearly anyone who will watch this, and to build a show around somebody who has discovered that it no longer applies to them is something that the show has to work out from under almost immediately. Linger on her sickness too long and it seems manipulative. Move on from it too fast and the initial set up seems like a manipulative hook. As an attempt to counteract this, Stella keeps her connections at the hospital as a volunteer so that her gain doesn’t come with a disregard for those still fighting the disease.
But part of Stella getting better is that the story of her life and the stories of her family come as a complete package. Living in a constant state of denial or as part of a concerted effort to keep someone happy in their final months and years is undoubtedly exhausting. Of all the ways to show how a group of people choose what to do next, “Life Sentence” picks one of the least dramatically satisfying paths, one that doesn’t leave room for much truth either.
“Life Sentence” airs Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. ET on The CW.