Life Sentence Cast on Subverting Tropes & Exploring Family Drama

The new CW TV show is being pitched as a different kind of cancer story, but, at its heart, it's a family dramedy.

Life Sentence is a show that is very aware of its place in the pop culture discussion. It’s a romantic comedy in a TV landscape where romantic comedies are not often done. And it’s a story about illness that subverts many of the established tropes when it comes to what a “cancer story” is supposed to be.

The new CW show stars Lucy Hale as Stella, a young woman who finds out she has gone into remission from what she thought was a terminal cancer diagnosis. In the wake of the announcement, Stella finds out that all of the people in her life have been hiding their own struggles from her in an attempt to make her final months and years happy.

Den of Geek was part of a group of reporters who visited the Life Sentence Vancouver set back in November. We talked to the series stars about what makes their show special.

“I initially thought it was such a great idea and something that I had never seen or heard before,” said Hale, who chose the CW pilot as her first TV project following the end of Pretty Little Liars. “It’s very interesting. Where we pick up in the pilot, you meet this girl who is pretty impulsive anyway. But if she’s living like she’s dying, she’s going to do some pretty crazy like marry a guy she’s known for three days in Paris. Who knows what else she’s gotten herself into?”

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As the show progresses, Hale teases that Life Sentence will further explore the dysfunctional aspects of her family in what feels like as much a show about progressing into adulthood as it is a show about illness—if not moreso.

We meet her, we find out she’s going to live, which is great news, but to realize that she has no idea who she is and no who her family really is, because they’ve been protecting her in this little bubble from the reality of their problems and the reality of the world. So when she finds out she’s going to live, it’s a bittersweet moment, because then at the same time, she realizes how insanely dysfunctional her family. That’s been so fun to dive into in the later episodes.

Jayson Blair plays Stella’s older brother, Aiden Abbott, who has used his sister’s illness as a way to avoid other responsibilities. “We learn that everyone’s a mess,” said Blair, “and we start to delve into a little bit of why that is. And, yeah. The history of all that, which is a lot of fun.” Blair echoes what Hale says about the family dynamics of the show. Yes, this is a show that takes place in and around the diagnosis of cancer, but it should be relatable to anyone who has ever had a complicated family.

“We’re telling this story, and it’s not about the cancer so much…. it’s about how that affects each characters,” continued Blair. Stella’s parents (Dylan Walsh and Gillian Vigman) are struggling financially following years of medical bills, and their marriage is in ruins. Meanwhile, Stella’s older sister, Elizabeth (Brooke Lyons), gave up her own academic future so that she could help take care of her sister.

Blair muses:

For me, what Life Sentence is all about, the cancer is over, and for the last ten years, the ‘life sentence’ now is, these ten years, we been lying to this girl that we all love so much … And how that’s shaped each one of us, and now, how that’s ruining our lives.

Elliot Knight plays Wes, Stella’s British husband. “The real story begins at what would normally be the end,” said Knight. “That’s something that you don’t really see discovered in that sense.” 

For Knight, the “funny and heartwarming” elements of the script by Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith were what drew him to the story. “During pilot season,” said Knight, “you read so many shows, all the time, trying to set up this dynamic and get you hooked and invested, and it was one of the only ones that I read… it was the first one that I read where I felt so engaged instantly.”

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In some ways, Life Sentence is a high-concept show, but, at its heart, it’s a family dramedy on a TV landscape where there aren’t many series that center family issues and dynamics so centrally. It used to a mainstay of The WB/CW line-up. With Life Sentence, the tradition continues.

Life Sentence premieres tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. ET.