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'Life Sentence' with Lucy Hale Comes to the CW
March 7, 2018  | By David Hinckley

There are worse problems than the one faced by Stella Abbott in the new CW drama Life Sentence.

Stella, played by the delightful Lucy Hale (top), finds out she has been miraculously cured of terminal cancer.

So the question in Life Sentence, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, is what’s next. Or, more specifically, how do you turn “what’s next” into a sustained television drama?

The first answer is “consequences.”

It’s not that Stella did anything bad in the expectation she wouldn’t be around to pay for it. She hasn’t done anything one-tenth as devious as Hale’s Ariel would sometimes do on Pretty Little Liars.

No, the consequences here stem from everyone else.

After Stella was diagnosed, her goofy and irresponsible but good-hearted brother Aiden (Jayson Blair, left) and her married-with-children sister Lizzie (Brooke Lyons) took her on every adventure they could imagine.

Her college professor father Paul (Dylan Walsh, below) and her mother Ida (Gillian Vigman) devoted their own lives to making Stella’s as positive and happy as it could be. When Stella decided the one big remaining item on her bucket list was to fall in love, they scraped up the money to send her to Paris, where she met fellow lonely romantic Wes (Elliot Knight).

They were married by Stella’s godmother Poppy (Claudia Rocafort). It was an impulse wedding, which made sense because, not to be a buzzkill or anything, no one was sure how much time Stella had left.

“It was only a six- to eight-month commitment, max,” she explains.

Then she went back to her oncologist, expecting the clock had ticked further toward midnight, and to everyone’s shock got the other c-word: cured.

That word isn’t thrown around much in real-life cancer circles, which are wary of anything that could signal premature optimism. It’s a necessary dramatic device for Life Sentence.

What should be the happiest moment of Stella’s life, in any case, within a few days crumbles into incomprehensible chaos.

She learns that most of her family’s outward happiness, the positive, upbeat spirit that gave hope and joy to Stella’s life as a cancer patient, was an act, a production staged entirely for her benefit.

With the possible exception of party-guy Aiden, they all were falling apart, bottling up their mounting private misery or delivering a string of lies so they could maintain as cheerful and perfect a world as possible for Stella.

It was an admirable, selfless, noble and loving thing to do. Now that they’ve been released from active duty, however, they’re blurting out the truth. Lots of truths.

The fact that Love, Actually isn’t really Wes’s favorite movie, while a serious confession, pales next to what Mom and Dad are no longer repressing.

Most do not go so far as to suggest they resent Stella. Lizzie does.

The mass reshuffling of the deck also quickly introduces new players and scenarios into Abbott family life, and that becomes part of the foundation on which Life Sentence will build its 13-episode first season.

The show also does a good job of establishing that flock of characters quickly.

While Stella has her quirks, she’s the fulcrum and, all things being relative, often the sane one. The others form a solid dysfunctional television family: sometimes exasperating, often awkward, usually forgivable and sympathetic.

Perhaps the most interesting question is how the cancer premise will play into the ongoing storylines.

Inserting it too often or too glibly could make the idea wear thin, given how tender the subject will be for many viewers. On the other hand, the creators presumably didn’t just use it to set up a generic show about a screwy extended family.

Whatever the long-term plan, Lucy Hale is reason enough to stick around and check it out. 

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