'Life Sentence' lightens up a cancer diagnosis

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Life Sentence — Lucy Hale — Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW

Light and whimsical about a subject that’s dark and heavy, Life Sentence is the CW’s new Wednesday-night show, paired with the similarly young-adult fiction of Riverdale. In Life Sentence, Lucy Hale, from Pretty Little Liars, is Stella, a young women who was given a diagnosis of fatal cancer eight years ago. Things have been just ducky ever since: She has a super-supportive boyfriend (Elliot Knight) and the love of a warm family headed up by her dad, played by Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh.

Stella is literally preparing for her death — there’s a cute scene in which she asks a baker who specializes in wedding cakes to make her a “funeral cake” — and she’s cool with telling strangers in the cheeriest manner possible, “I’m dying!” Then she receives a new diagnosis: She’s cured! The key to Life Sentence then begins to reveal itself: As those around Stella acclimate themselves to the news, they reveal that things are not so rosy in their lives — that, indeed, they have been keeping secrets from her and putting on happy-faces that now melt into sad or angry or anxious ones.

It’s a nifty idea: a deconstruction of the sappy advice to “live every day as though it was your last.” You can see why the CW was intrigued by this set-up from show creators Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith: Girl escapes death and lives not-so-happily ever after. Hale is a winning presence, all wide eyes and cute Peter Pan collars. One of the producers is Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs, so the show has a handle on quick jokes and comic reaction-shots. The show gives Stella a job as a barista in a coffee shop where she can be super-kooky while running into kookier kustomers — er, customers.

When the people around Stella start getting real with her about their struggles, Life Sentence also struggles at finding the proper tone. Her parents’ marriage collapses when Stella’s mom (Gillian Vigman) falls in love with another woman. Her brother (Jayson Blair) is a living-at-home layabout who peddles speed to stressed soccer moms. And her boyfriend tells her he’s really not going to continue to go outside when he needs to fart — he was just being polite while he thought she was dying. Can you see that these various confessions carry very different degrees of seriousness and weight? Life Sentence doesn’t — it treats everything as a potential excuse for slapstick wackiness. The dialogue is often trite (“It’s my turn to think about my needs”) whenever it’s not implausibly eloquent and aphoristic (“You beat certain death; I think you can learn how to handle uncertain life”).

While I doubt I’ll be checking in on Life Sentence again, it does seem to have a challenge to solve going forward: Four or five episodes in, will it matter any more that Stella used to be considered a dying woman? If it’s anything like real life, no, it won’t. In which case, doesn’t Life Sentence turn into just another romantic comedy about a wide-eyed hero and her wacky family?

Life Sentence airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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