These are my thoughts on Season 1, Episode 1 of the new CW series Life Sentence.
I really wanted to like Life Sentence. I actually do like a lot of CW shows. It’s somewhere along the lines of shows I usually watch. I liked the actors. I liked their chemistry. I however, did not like Life Sentence. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t want to cover my eyes and hum the lines of classic rock in my happy place to ignore the show. None of that equaled liking the series. I might watch next weeks, and at least until episode 3 where the producers themselves say things get good. Producers saying to wait until episode 3 for the “good stuff” – in my book – is kind of a red flag. If the characters really develop in episode 3, why isn’t it episode 1?
Some people might dislike the show because it’s so tonally different from Pretty Little Liars. I’m actually fine with that transition – after so many gruelling seasons of “Who is A?” I was ready to move on. I want success for Lucy – and, a dramedy sounds like the perfect way to move on from the Pretty Little Liars world. Except, instead of being tonally different, the pilot was tone deaf.
Right from minute one, Lucy’s character Stella (whose name I barely remember, since she left so little impact – sorry Lucy, you’re great, it’s not you – it’s the style), we have a huge exposition dump. And then another. And then… another. Then, guess what? More exposition. Line by line Lucy tells us her cancer tale – her love story in Paris, how (not?) sad it is that she’s going to die. Stella comments on every aspect of her story thus far. I’m not even sure if the main events are happening near present, or if this story is being told from a 90 year old Stella. There’s just too much narration.
While show not tell isn’t a hard rule, it’s a rule for a reason. Not only that, this sort of thing usually only works when the story is an adaptation from another medium, such as writing. I don’t need Stella’s inner monologue on every detail. Show me the discomfort between the characters. Show me the hardships of her cancer, and show me why I should care that this character is suddenly not going to die. Stella herself seems bummed out that her living funeral is a celebration party. She tells us through her monologue that she had lived a perfect life.
All of the conflict thus far comes from a family that has made sacrifices for Stella, and now those sacrifices are rendered useless because, oh crap – their loved one is now going to live. How terrible! If anything, it’s kind of rude to the people who really are facing sudden death. I get that Stella’s story is a coming of age story in a different light. Life, death, existential crises – they’re great narratives to lean on. Except, Stella just roams around watching her relatives whine about how she’s going to live (even if they don’t specifically say it), and how much her having cancer sucked for them.
I think I’ll give it a chance. I’m just not that impressed. I wonder if this story would have been better as a movie. I’m not sure if there’s enough drive and pull to suck me into these characters lives season after season. I’m just not sure what the hook is. While cancer is an annoying trope in itself, at least cancer plots – will they or won’t they live, we’re invested. Instead, we’re left with a confused character that’s trying to reevaluate the world. In a way, this coming of age story seems like every other twenty something. Yes, Stella had cancer and thought she was going to die. Yes, Stella is unsure if a young marriage is what she’s going to want long term. Her family kind of sucks. They blame her for things. Her and pretty much every other human being on the planet that has to deal with life. I get the title – that sometimes life is scary, confusing, and hard. I just don’t get what makes Stella so special.
Perhaps if the premise hadn’t told me she was going to live. Waited until episode 5 – let me see the gruelling struggle of losing a loved one – let me see the sacrifices as her family hid them – I might care. Instead, it’s all dumped in my lap while Lucy Hale does her best Aria-esque sarcastic remark. We get it Lucy, you’re adorable (she really is). Unfortunately, it takes more than great actors to pull a story. What’s the story here? Maybe if Stella had gone back to college after thinking she was going to die, it would be funny.
I just wish the producers hadn’t opted for such an exposition-based pilot. I get that pilots want to shove you into the story, but they could have eased us into it. They shouldn’t have been afraid to let us see some of Stella’s cancer – or love – journey. In-fact, that might of been just what this series needed.