Great ideas with poor execution appears to be a theme this week. First came Hulu’s Hard Sun, a science-fiction-flavored cop thriller that builds its story around impending Armageddon but avoids really thinking about it means to live when the world is ending. The CW’s new series Life Sentence is practically an inversion of that premise: It’s a family comedy about a young woman named Stella Abbott (Lucy Hale) who was diagnosed with cancer as a young girl, lives into her late teens, then gets an “all clear” diagnosis and suddenly has to face life without a looming death sentence.
The problem here isn’t that Life Sentence doesn’t deal with its premise in plot terms — it absolutely does. From Stella’s new husband Wes (Elliot Knight), a Brit who married her thinking she only had eight months to live, to Stella’s parents (Dylan Walsh and Gillian Vigman) instantly breaking up, to her dad contemplating selling the family house to pay for the college tuition he never thought he’d have to pay, the series is very good about showing us exactly how and why a particular set of fictions were maintained. No, the problem is that the show seems too unnerved by its own premise to face it head-on, as a good comedy-drama ought to do. It’s reluctant to go for the big, complicated, messy emotions without reflexively softening the hard edges, and trying to make everything and everyone onscreen seem as adorable and harmless as possible. The performances are skilled but a bit bland overall, much like the Crate and Barrel look of the sets and lighting. For a series intent on implicitly criticizing the “romantic cancer movies,” it’s too comfortable showing its plucky heroine manifesting no physical signs of having dealt with the disease. (Stella makes cancer look like a way to become model skinny.) The cutesy score of plucked violins and acoustic guitar — a familiar romantic comedy style that a friend calls “pizzi-cute-o” — regularly reminds you of how life-affirming and lovable and not at all disturbing the whole thing is. And whenever there’s a montage, you can bet that the show will crank up the triumphant pop music (complete with millennial whoops) to order your heart to soar.
It’s too bad, because this is a terrific idea for a series. If it were a bit more bold about confronting the confusion and anguish of its characters, and a bit less worried about conforming to certain marketplace templates, it might make a stronger impression. I’m just not convinced that it has the nerve to be the show it needs to be. By the second episode, Life Sentence already settles into a groove that’s more in line with the tradition of shows like Everwood and Party of Five, which were superior examples of their genre but didn’t do much to rattle preconceived notions or take big risks. There’s enough talent involved in this thing that it could still turn into something special, though, so I don’t want to totally write it off. But if I have to, there’ll always be Six Feet Under.