“Life Sentence” is a tortuously sentimental drama from the CW about a teenage cancer patient who discovers, after years of living as if every day were her last, that she is fully cured. It’s a premise that lands, tonally, somewhere between a pharmaceutical commercial and a greeting card — sunny skies and inspirational words underscored by a murmur of unpleasant realities, a litany of fine print waiting to be dealt with. “Life Sentence” tries to be lighthearted, but its high spirits feel wildly disconnected from the somber reality it depicts — a bankrupt family, a host of passed-over siblings, and two failing marriages. The CW has done much to elevate the teen drama, but in its giddy plotting and facile characterization, ‘’Life Sentence” is barely a step above a show for children.
The drama is primarily a vehicle for gamine “Pretty Little Liars” star Lucy Hale, who plays former patient Stella, to lead a show of her own instead of sharing space with three other actresses. By that metric, it’s a success. “Life Sentence” is the Lucy Hale show; her presence there seems contingent upon how many disparate, appealing character traits can be piled onto her slender body. (One of the many distractingly macabre things about the show is that Stella is ultra-thin now because she was nearly ultra-dead a few weeks ago. Fortunately her terminal illness gave her a très chic beach bod, which the show is eager to flatter however it can.) So Stella is generous! Ditzy! Charming! Persuasive! And/or whatever else the target demographic wants.
To the show’s credit, there is a story in the life of a sheltered girl who skipped learning the responsibilities of adulthood because she was too busy preparing to die. Stella threw herself into a very romantic view of what she wanted the last few years of her life to look like — which included a whirlwind marriage in Paris to a super-hot British guy (Elliot Knight). Having a future is a whole different skill set. But the show advances practically nowhere from this premise. Her family is clearly somewhat traumatized by what happened to them over the course of her illness, but their straits are played closer to comic hijinks than thoughtful struggle. It reads as if a much more serious show was given a sunny brush-up.
Part of that appears to be hilariously steamy sex scenes, in which Stella and her husband, Wes, have hours-long sessions surrounded by lit candles. Aside from missing a teachable moment about fire safety, “Life Sentence” is so committed to being “sexy” and “adult” that it loops around to seeming absurdly reductive, as if their marriage is what shows up for stock footage tagged “romance.” All this flash covers for the fact that Stella and Wes barely know each other at all. Indeed, the show’s main plot driver is that apparently, while Stella was sick, she had a terrible lack of awareness of what was happening to the people closest to her. As soon as she announces that she’s cured, her parents (Dylan Walsh and Gillian Vigman, gamely playing “adults” in a kids’ show) announce their separation; her siblings Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons) and Aiden (Jayson Blair) reveal resentment and compromise undertaken to give Stella the end-of-life she wanted. And as she figures out her marriage, Stella also has to figure out her career; she never bothered getting an education.
Of course, she gets a job in the ward where she used to be a patient. Of course, she gets too close to some of the patients. Of course, she catches the eye of an implausibly handsome oncologist who really understands what she’s going through. In many predictable ways, this show is a machine for silly sentiment.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. If Hale’s quirky lovability works for the viewer — either in the actress’ persona or in her role as Stella — then “Life Sentence” will be an easy, if monotonous, watch. If not, well, there’s very little else to recommend it.