The Runway – Your 2017 Pilot Survival Guide: CW Dramas

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Life Sentence

Logline: Hourlong dramedy centers on a young woman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. When finds out that she’s not dying after all, she has to learn to live with the choices she made when she decided to “live like she was dying.”
Cast: Lucy Hale, Dylan Walsh, Gillian Vigman, Jayson Blair, Brooke Lyons, Elliot Knight, Carlos PenaVega
Creators: Erin Cardillo (W / EP), Richard Keith (W / EP) Bill Lawrence (EP), Jeff Ingold (EP), Lee Toland Krieger (D)
Studios: , Doozer Productions

Some set-ups make ’ mouths salivate. Like if Groundhog Day didn’t exist, and you pitched me guy has to live same day over and over again, I would pump my fist in excitement. It’s a great “What If…” scenario. The idea of living your life like there’s literally no tomorrow, only to have to walk back some of the consequences of thinking like that, is compelling. But there’s a shadow looming over this idea — CW literally picked up a pilot last year called No Tomorrow, and it didn’t move the Nielsen meter at all.

LIFE SENTENCE starts with a long page listing all of the characters and describing them. Ever since I first saw this approach with the Modern Family spec, I’ve liked it. The , Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith, do a pretty good of describing the characters. The problem is there are a lot of them.

We meet our protagonist Stella shopping with her husband Wes for a cake for her funeral. We flashback 10 years ago to her terminal cancer diagnosis, then get a cute montage of her life since then, including meeting Wes. So far, so good. Before the title card we get the news promised by the logline: Stella won’t be dying after all.

Then the issues start arising: Stella’s parents’ marriage has been crumbling, but they’ve been hiding that from her because they thought she was dying; her brother and sister were both hiding things from her as well; Stella’s dog is going to be moving back in with her and Wes after a long stay at her parents’ house; Wes might be going back to his finance after quitting it to live the life he dreamed of; Stella has to get a ; She learns her mom is a lesbian; etc etc etc.

Life Sentence is a fun, breezy read. The voiceover is great. The promise of the premise is paid off. I could totally see a grown-up Rory Gilmore type totally nailing the lead role.

We’ve got some greenlight problems though. Number one, the Stella character has to do so much heavy lifting for the pilot to work. The other characters are great, and fun, though basically all written in the same voice as Stella. But if Lucy Hale doesn’t absolutely nail this role, the series can’t work.

Secondly, the conceit is almost entirely paid off in the pilot. At the end of it, we have just kind of a standard dramedy (heavy on the comedy) to look forward to in subsequent episodes, with the high concept losing almost all of its narrative thrust.

If Life Sentence has some tailwinds, it would be in the form of This is Us‘ strong Nielsen ratings and the Gilmore Girls‘ revival generating a lot of interest amongst the CW’s core demo. But Gilmore Girls had a very strong central relationship between mother-daughter, and Life Sentence has more of a hub-and-spoke lead approach with everyone bouncing off Stella. Fun read, but this will take a bit of a leap of faith on the network’s part to give the greenlight. 

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