Tuesday, March 6, 2018

TV REVIEW: The CW's 'Life Sentence'

The CW will debut its new original comedic drama series Life Sentence on Wednesday, March 7 at 9/8c. The cast includes Lucy Hale, Elliot Knight, Jayson Blair, Brooke Lyons, Carlos PenaVega, Gillian Vigman and Dylan Walsh.

Read on for my thoughts on the new series after screening its premiere episode.

The CW's latest venture into hourlong comedic dramas offers a deconstruction of the "sick-lit" genre. Life Sentence wears its influences on its sleeve to show that dying isn't this magical thing that suddenly fixes everyone's problems. It's instead a misconception built out of the disease. And yet, this genre is still very popular and has produce a number of films over the last few years - The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Everything Everything and the upcoming Midnight Sun. It's a genre that in particular glorifies the disease and plays into the romantic convention that finding true love will suddenly solve all of the protagonist's problems. It's the latest extension of the romantic comedy genre to give it more of an edge. Stories are always evolving. Genres have to change in order to remain relevant. But now, it appears the world is ready to move past this particular genre to show the ugliness that such diseases can actually be. Of course, the disease at the center of Life Sentence isn't on display for very long - nor does it seem like the show itself is all that knowledgable about it. Pretty Little Liars alum Lucy Hale plays Stella Abbott who has been dying from cancer for the past eight years. She's preparing for death by living her life to the fullest. But at the start of the series, she gets the news that she has been cured and has the rest of her life to look forward to. So, it's not a show about the disease of the main character. Instead, it is a show about how that one defining action changed everything around Stella and she was often too sick or self-involved to even notice it. At its heart, Life Sentence wants to be both a whimsical romantic comedy and a grounded family drama.

Patience will probably be necessary for watching Stella as a lead character as well. Hale can absolutely lead a show on The CW. It's a strong central performance. She is funny when the material requires her to be. She can be heartbreaking when it's needed. She can be annoyingly self-centered as well. It's that last quality that will ultimately define one's patience for this show. Stella's doctors told her family early on that they need to keep things positive around her in order to help with her recovery. So as soon as she is cured, all of the secrets that have been festering for years suddenly come out. Stella is completely shocked by all of them and just wants to fix her broken family to be like it always was. And yet, that's not real or genuine. She's chasing a fantasy that was created for her to help her heal. And now, it takes her the entire premiere to begin to cope with change. However, the show over-indulges in the specific behaviors that Stella expects every single day. She believes she is happily married to Wes (Elliot Knight), who she met during a romantic trip to Paris to find her one true love. But every night she expects sex for hours surrounded by hundreds of candles with Sara Bareilles playing until she falls asleep in a specific position on his chest. It's a lot to handle. The show plays it for the comedy. But it also highlights that Stella is used to getting things her way for a long time now. She hasn't had to deal with change. And now, it's suddenly hitting her all at once. It's a lot to handle in the premiere. It makes it seem like the show is rushing a couple of big plot developments simply for the shock value without really digging deep into these characters.

And so, Stella's family is mostly defined by the surprising twists that threaten to change her relationship with them. Stella always came to expect family dinners once a week where everyone got along. But that was just everyone putting on a brave face and pretending. Of course, it's also on Stella for not noticing the problems that have clearly been going on with some of her family as well. She has never picked up on the tension between her father, Paul (Dylan Walsh), and brother, Aiden (Jayson Blair), because Aiden is still living at home with no ambition in his life whatsoever. She has never noticed that her sister, Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons), may resent her children because she felt the pressure to have them young to bring some joy into this family. She never thought it was strange that Elliot agreed with her one hundred percent of the time and always did whatever she felt like doing. She never thought to ask how her parents could afford to send her to Paris for the romantic vacation. She just always expected everything to turn out exactly as she hoped. She had the sad story to ensure that people always pitied her. And now, she's facing a reality where she's not dying and doesn't know how to act like a normal person. She doesn't know what to do with her life. And yes, that is scary and relatable. It's all filtered through a high-concept premise to get to that point. But it's still an effective place to be for a series - even though the execution often veers into annoying territory throughout the premiere.

However, I do worry about The CW only sending out one episode for review ahead of time for this coverage. Midseason shows on the broadcast networks should always send more than one episode. It's hard to judge a show based on one episode. The production schedule makes it difficult for these networks to send more than one for their fall launches. But for midseason, it should be more practical and available. This is a show that has a lot of plot it needs to deliver upfront. Right now, Stella is the only character who has much dimension to her at all. Elliot has some as well but it's mostly about him freaking out about what his life would look like if he kept living it completely on how Stella wants it. That's not a recipe for success with a healthy relationship. And yet, the two of them are still being positioned as the romantic leads of the show who can conquer anything through their love and devotion to each other. The conversations they have do become more honest. But I still have no idea how this show works on an episodic basis. Almost everything in the premiere is told from Stella's perspective. It's all about how she relates to the rest of the world. But the future episodes will most likely try to flesh out the supporting ensemble as well. That's clearly what will need to happen. And yet, it's still a mystery if those characters can carry their own stories and make them interesting. That's why additional episodes would be beneficial for review. It would help me provide more insight on if Life Sentence is a show worth sticking with. The CW has a strong track record of shows I enjoy. But it's not a perfect network. This premiere is promising despite its frustrations. Now, the series just has to keep growing and be comfortable with its ensemble.