Life Sentence Isn't Pretty Little Liars, & That's A Good Thing

I came in on Pretty Little Liars in its very last season, where nothing made sense, a board game was murdering people, and “The Evil Twin Did It” was a legitimate excuse for literally anything. It was a wild time, usually led by Lucy Hale as the literary Aria Montgomery. Since Hale was able to maintain a straight face during this level of high-wire plotting for nearly an entire decade, we could all easily expect more thematic madness from the actress in her PLL follow-up project.

But, instead, Hale chose to return to television with Life Sentence, a CW rom-com-with-a-spin, which is very a welcome trend right now. While romances follow the template of boy meets girl, they fall in love, and end the story happily ever after, the upcoming dramedy, premiering Thursday, March 7, takes a decidedly different route.

Life Sentence picks up after the “I do” of its heroine Stella Abbott (Hale), who married a charming British man she bares knows because she was dying of terminal cancer. If you’re living everyday like it could actually be your last, why not go all in on love? Especially when your prospective months-long marriage would be with someone as wildly charming as Wes (Elliot Knight). The surprise is, Stella, who’s been battling her disease for years, isn’t dying anymore. Her cutting-edge treatment actually worked.

If you can’t already tell, Life Sentence is far from Pretty Little Liars territory — and that’s for the best.

Although PLL was at its core about female friendships and growing up, those explorations were powered by hoodwinking, paranoia, and actual death. The CW doesn’t exactly need more of that anxiety-inducing storytelling since it already has Riverdale. That’s why Life Sentence is allowed to delve into what adulthood and coming of age mean with a more grounded approach that doesn’t veer into murder-y soap opera territory (although emotions are still very, very high in this suburban slice of Oregon).

The major goal of Life Sentence is to seriously figure out what life looks like when you’re faced with the mundane consequences of simply having to live it. Once Stella first learned of her terminal cancer diagnosis, her supportive family decided to fabricate a fairytale of a metaphorical bubble around the young woman, where every single facet of it was perfect. There were wigged rave parties in Stella’s hospital room, trips for Stella to go find herself in Paris, and absolutely none of the unavoidable chaos that naturally comes with being alive. Stella’s dad even pays the rent for Stella’s impossibly chic apartment, whose size will honestly shock any millennial who has ever gone hunting for a one-bedroom.

When it’s announced Stella isn’t dying, the artifice comes crashing down. Wes has been trying to fit into the Perfect Man mold he knew Stella deserved for her final days on Earth. But, what does their relationship look like now that these two crazy kids are married, in their early 20s, and know nothing real about each other. As the Sentence trailer teases, Stella doesn’t even know her husband likes to be spanked in bed.

While Wes and Stella’s relationship serves up lots of hijinks, the real, attention-worthy tension comes from her family members, who all sacrificed parts of themselves to protect her health. Dreams were abandoned, marriages crumbled, and bank accounts were drained, all without Stella realizing a single thing. In her mind, everything was hunky-dory in Abbott Land. It’s obvious the family planned to deal with their internal messiness once Stella passed, but now they have to do it out in the open while ripping the metaphorical scales off their her eyes. It’s a moving portrait of what we do for the ones we love and how that can actually take a toll on us.

Although everyone is pushed onto complicated paths with Stella’s healthy diagnosis, it’s her mother Ida Abbott (Gillian Vigman) who gets the most compelling storyline. Amid the stress of Stella’s health crisis, her parents’ marriage fell apart. Now that Stella is healthy, Ida is allowed to think about who she is apart from being a terrified mother, and what she wants from this new lease on life. We find out she wants to explore bisexuality. It’s exciting to see a woman nearing 50 happily and proudly exploring her sexuality in a way she never planned to. It’s even more exciting to see her push back against people who want to tell her such exploration is wrong, as certain closed-minded people will do.

If you enjoy Ida’s much-deserved stubborness in Sentence’s series premiere, you’ll love her journey in the second episode, “Re-Inventing the Abbotts,” where that obstinance becomes unbridled rage. Not to spoil anything, but hammers are swung and weird holes are dug in the yard. Though all of these antics are purposefully ridiculous, they lead to the most moving scene of the series’ early episodes.

All of this feet-firmly-on-the-ground family drama couldn’t be further from the madcap town of Rosewood, but it’s also a ways away from fellow CW rom-coms Jane The Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Those award-winning series keep countless plates spinning in the air at once — from murderous international drug dealers and sweeping musical numbers to healthy doses of magical realism all around — while also dealing with weighty topics like grief, mental illness, and abortion.

Life Sentence is not that show. It’s a whimsical family drama with an unexpected, poignant jumping-off point. And, in a world that's increasingly stressful, it's a perfectly enjoyable 44 minutes plush commercial breaks.

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