Since the premiere of Arrow, The CW has become a network split down the line of younger-skewing programming that consists primarily of comic book and non-comic book adaptations. Some of its more recent efforts on the not-inspired-by-funny-books side of things, like Valor and Dynasty, have also felt like departures from what the network has typically offered. But, unlike the joyful and creative exuberance of Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a military conspiracy drama and a remake of an ‘80s primetime soap failed to make much of an impression with critics or audiences. As such, the network’s newest offering, Life Sentence, feels much more in its comfort zone, though its tendency to become overly saccharine will be its biggest obstacle moving forward.
Starring former Pretty Little Liars co-star Lucy Hale, Life Sentence is part comedy, part drama, part delayed coming-of-age story about a young cancer survivor Stella Abbott (Hale), who gets a new lease on life only to learn that second chance has unexpected consequences for her and her family. And it’s in the surprises that await Stella (and the audience) that Life Sentence finds its angle on the material, one that feigns at being caustic at times, but is really more of a breezy family comedy that’s pleasant enough until it becomes cloyingly sweet.
Like most pilot episodes, Life Sentence’s has the unenviable task of establishing who its characters are, where they are, and what’s going on in their lives at the particular moment in time the audience joins them. And, like most pilot episodes, this one has a tendency to buckle under the weight of all that information. There is an added degree of difficulty in that Life Sentence is tasked with catching viewers up on Stella’s past, how her battle with cancer has shaped and stunted her maturation, and how what she thought were the realities of her life were, in part, fabrications cooked up by her family convinced their days with a daughter and a sister were numbered. The truth, of course, is far different, as Stella quickly learns all is not well with the Abbott clan and that her quickie marriage to Wes (Elliot Knight) the handsome young Englishman she met while traveling in Paris comes with some real challenges, too.
In a weird way, Life Sentence is about privilege, and what happens when that privilege is revealed to have been a carefully constructed but ultimately false veneer. In Stella’s case, her idyllic family is really just a hot mess. Her mother, Ida (Gillian Vigman) is leaving her father Paul (Dylan Walsh) for her best friend Poppy (Claudia Rocafort). Meanwhile, her brother Aiden is a shiftless layabout and womanizer, while her other sister, Elizabeth, is resentful of Stella, naming her sister as the reason her dreams of being a writer were put on hold.
Like Stella, the Abbott family (and their respective partners) are at a bit of a crossroads when the series begins, one that is a direct consequence of the “live in the moment” ethos that has dominated their lives for the past several years. Everyone, it seems, has been writing emotional checks they can’t possibly hope to cash, and now that Stella’s been declared cancer free, the balance has come due.
It’s a strong premise on which to begin a show, especially when it becomes clear the series is about far more than the illness that sets its story in motion. Thankfully, those various elements — Ida and Poppy’s relationship, in particular — are strong enough to withstand the pilot episode’s initial clumsiness and attempts to push Stella’s experiences and hasty marriage into the immediate present with a lengthy and overelaborate prelude, complete with voiceover from Hale. It’s easy to understand why Life Sentence would take this approach, essentially offering up its pilot episode to the exposition gods, but at a time when it matters for television shows to make as strong impression as possible out of the gate, this approach isn’t just outdated, it’s feels downright detrimental.
But the show’s creators essentially hedge their bets in the pilot by rushing through the opening sequence to commence focusing on a fun and likable cast. That helps distract from all of the heavy lifting being done in the first episode, setting up a series of life-changing moments that fall into place the moment Stella begins to realize the reality of her situation. Life Sentence chooses to look at those changes with a surprisingly bright disposition that keeps things light but also feels a bit like it’s trying to sidestep some of the thornier and more complicated aspects of the story it’s trying to tell. The result winds up feeling a bit like a missed opportunity for the show and its direction, one that when faced with tackling notions of mortality and what it means to put another person’s happiness before your own, to the detriment of your own life experience, laughs it off for the most part, saying “c’est la vie” while sipping its double shot caramel frappuccino with extra whip cream.
It’s not that Life Sentence needs to be darker, or that it can’t laugh at the way life kicks you upside the head. Rather, it’s that Life Sentence only seems to want to laugh at life’s propensity for head-kicking. That, in turn, makes the series’ investigation of second chances overly saccharine. And that feels like a disservice to the cast, which is really quite enjoyable and will hopefully be given the chance to do more as the series moves forward.
Life Sentence continues next Wednesday with ‘Re-Inventing the Abbotts’ @9pm on The CW.
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