It’s a question that circulates through middle school sleepovers, long car rides and uncomfortable dinner parties: If you knew you are going to die tomorrow, what would you do today? For most people, this question is just a fun party game, something to think about that you will never really have to face. But for others, like Stella Abbott (Lucy Hale, “Pretty Little Liars”), who have their death (supposedly) set in stone, this question drives the daily choices that they make, for better or for worse.
In the case of Stella in “Life Sentence,” it’s definitely for worse. After eight years of battling terminal cancer and living her life as if each day was her last, Stella is cured of her disease and must face the reality of a world that is much harsher than she once believed. As soon as Stella tells friends and family that she is healthy, her parents split up, her brother (Jayson Blair, “Unforgettable”) turns out to be a low-life who impregnates married women and her beautiful British husband (Elliot Knight, “Once Upon A Time”) tells her that he’s only been pretending to love all of the same things she does because he didn’t think she’d be around long enough to figure out otherwise.
It’s certainly a lot to handle at once, yet none of these represent a main conflict in the show. In fact, “Life Sentence” is pretty much void of conflict all together. How can anything seem so significant and overwhelming to Stella after she literally beats cancer? This girl stared certain death in the face for eight years and came out alive on the other side, but somehow we are supposed to believe that finding out that her husband’s favorite movie isn’t “Love Actually” is somehow going to push her over the edge.
And it’s this equating everyday inconveniences with fighting a terminal disease that also raises some concern. Dealing with cancer as both a patient and a loved one of a patient is painful, frustrating and often times overwhelming. Yet in “Life Sentence,” Stella’s years of cancer seem as breezy and adventurous as a study abroad trip to Paris. “Life Sentence” had the opportunity to make a poignant statement on restarting life after putting it on hold for so long, but instead they made cancer as easy to get over as a common cold and directed focus at mundane issues.
Obviously, people are still allowed to have normal problems and feelings after surviving a tragedy, but Hale’s quirky, boho-princess character goes about dealing with hers in a way that is so unlikeable you find yourself scoffing at everything she says or does. Not only are Hale’s unnecessary voiceovers sickly sweet, but her wide-eyed innocence is more childish than endearing. This is essentially a coming-of-age story for a married woman who is well into her 20s and carries a Danny Tanner-esque desire to fix everyone else’s problems.
The most redeemable scene of the show comes at the end, and is delivered not by look-at-how-cute-my-moped-is Stella, but rather her Jim-Harbaugh-looking father (Dylan Walsh,”Longmire”). At a backyard family party, Mr. Abbott breaks down, crying out to his family that he’s been scared everyday for the past eight years that he was going to lose his little girl, but knew he had to be strong for the family and couldn’t show that he was hurting. It is the only instance in “Life Sentence” in which there is any real substance, and that demonstrates the ugly, devastating truth about cancer that the rest of the show willingly skips over.
Much like its main character, “Life Sentence” is going to need a miracle to stay alive. While other shows have mastered the art of turning normal people’s problems into exciting and emotional shows, “Life Sentence” just feels empty and confused. Stella Abbott has a lot of growing up to do, but she’s already won one of life’s biggest, hardest battles. The rest should be easy, so really, there’s no point in sticking around to find out.