In "Life Sentence," premiering Wednesday on the CW, Lucy Hale, formerly of “Pretty Little Liars”, plays Stella Abbott, a young woman who is dying of cancer until, early in the first episode, she isn't.
By the time we and Stella learn that she has been cured, we have been treated to a highly suspicious expository recap of her eight-year relationship with an unspecified malignancy. It was not so much a battle, as she recounts it, as a life-embracing, life-enhancing celebration thrown for her by a loving family and the boy she meets in Paris and quickly marries.
As the title indicates, Stella's prognosis of survival flips everything about. Living takes the lid off the simmering resentment that has been suppressed over the course of Stella's cancer, which had grown in a world of young adult novels and films based on young adult novels about young people with cancer, and which play in Stella's head. Now, self-sacrifice flips over to selfishness, and lies her family told to keep Stella happy are just lies her family told.
And so. Stella's mother Ida (Gillian Vigman) is leaving father Paul (Dylan Walsh) for her godmother Poppy played by Claudia Rocafort ("I'm coming out as a bi … sexual person. Is that how you say it?") Their twice-mortgaged house, one of those craftsman catalog showplaces so beloved by American single-camera sitcom designers, might have to go on the market.
Brother Aiden (Jayson Blair), who had seemed to Stella merely an agent of encouraging fun, is outed by sister Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons) as "a grown man who still lives at home, sells his ADD medication to soccer moms and uses your cancer to guilt them into sleeping with him." Aiden, in turn, outs Elizabeth as less than perfectly content with motherhood.
And now Stella and husband Wes (Elliot Knight) have to face the potential long-term reality of a marriage that they had envisioned as "only a six to eight-month commitment, tops." Wes has been lying to her too.
Whose side is he on, she wants to know, as they begin a new phase in their life, arguing about her family.
“Your side, babe,” says Wes. “I’m always on your side, unless we were on a boat and being on the same side as you is going to make the boat tip. Then I would obviously move to the other side. For your safety. But I would still be on your side metaphorically.”
That Stella seems to have had no clue that all was not right in paradise — what her father describes, acknowledging not only the series’ milieu, but a sort of bad habit of television itself, “an educated upper-middle-class white family in suburban Oregon” — strains credulity a little.
Created by Richard Keith and Erin Carillo (actors who co-created the short-lived "Significant Mother," also for CW), it is a witty show full of attractive, well-spoken people that manages to be a feel-good series even as it remains skeptical about its being a feel-good series. It has it both ways, all the way.
An inspirational pop song will play just before something goes wrong, and a homily will be followed by a rude joke. But there will be another homily along in a while. That her family is apparently falling apart in ways that Tennessee Williams could have worked into steamy southern drama is cushioned with soft edges and whimsicality; everything not being all right after all is the platform from which everything will become all right, eventually.
"You sound like a dying girl in one of these sappy cancer movies, trying to fix everybody else's problems just so you can avoid facing your own fears," says a young cancer patient (Nadej Bailey) Stella encounters late in the pilot, as she wallows in a wine-heavy pool of self-pity. That, of course, is just what is happening. (Stella will wind up back in the ward as a volunteer, to make illness something more than merely a springboard to a dysfunctional loving family comedy.)
Cake is eaten, and had, too.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)