CW’s Latest Whimsical Drama
Bill Lawrence has always been one of the most criminally undervalued showrunners of the new Golden Age of Television. He began the millennium with the awe-inspiring Scrubs, a comedy series following a hospital intern played by Zach Braff. Brilliantly mixing comedy and poigniancy, it is probably the closest my generation will ever get to MASH, even if it did stick around a bit too long. Lawrence followed that with the series Cougar Town, a comedy with a title so awful he spent many opening sequences making fun of it. Featuring Courtney Cox as a forty-ish divorcee finding love with a younger man, it managed to delight those few people who saw it. He also developed a wonderful business-centered single-camera series Ground Floor for TBS that was canceled very prematurely.
And now, he returns to his darker days with Life Sentence, yet another whimsical CW series centered around a charming female lead. Lucy Hale plays Stella Abbott, a twenty-three year woman who at the age of fifteen was diagnosed with cancer. Her family spent the next eight years doing everything in their power to make her last days wonderful. In her twenties, she went to Paris to find her last love, and met Wes, a transplanted Brit, and they had a whirlwind romance that ended with them getting married. The series opens with her preparing for her living funeral. And then… the last treatment works. And she’s cured.
This would seem to be the happy ending she’d been looking for, and you can imagine a dozen Hollywood rom-coms ending this way. Unfortunately, this is where things immediately fall apart. For starters, her ultra-supportive family now no longer can paper over the cracks they’ve been hiding because of Stella’s disease. Her parents are about to divorce, because her mother has been having an affair. With Stella’s godmother. Understandably, Dad (Dylan Walsh) is not taking it well. Her brother Aiden (Jayson Blair) has spent the last few years selling medication to soccer moms and sleeping with them, and now has knocked one up. Her sister Elizabeth abandoned her lifelong dream of becoming a writer to follow a job she hates because someone needed to make money.
And that’s just her family’s problem. When you get cancer at fifteen, you pretty much don’t consider your education, so Stella doesn’t have much of a career in front of her. (She’s working as a barista, and she sucks at it.) She’s now trying to build a life with her new husband, who she married without considering they’d have a future. Now that they do, they have consider getting kids. And Stella is trying desperately to fix her families problems but its not looking like it will be anywhere near as easy as curing her cancer.
If I’d made this series sound too dark, its not. Like Jane The Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this series gladly settles into a whimsical style that is delightful. Just as in Scrubs, Stella narrates the series and has many of the fantasy and flashback sequences that made that same show so delightful. I never had much use for Lucy Hale (or Pretty Little Liars, for that matter) but performance and delivery is so charming that I can understand why so many people find her appealing, and the rest of the cast is as good.
Bill Lawrence has, as I mentioned, created a great many delightful series. What he has yet to do is create a truly successful show. Even when Scrubs was immediately after Friends, he couldn’t get 10 million viewers to watch it, and Cougar Town’s numbers were so low, it had to hop from ABC to TBS mid-run. The early numbers for Life Sentence are not promising, either; its barely getting a million viewers, and I don’t expect things to get much better when Empire returns from its hiatus. The CW has always had more patience for keeping even the lowest rated of its series on the air then even some of the more prominent basic cable providers. I really hope this show gets that same kind of patience, because much like its plucky heroine, I want this show to live and thrive.
My score:4.25 stars.