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Living the Life

Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith have gone through changes in career, venue, and audience, but now they're in for a Life Sentence.

T.L. Stanley
  • Storm Santos
  • Storm Santos
  • The CW
  • The CW
  • The CW

Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith had been batting around an idea for an indie feature about a young woman with cancer meeting the man of her dreams and falling deeply in love.

The story, given the terminal illness at its center, doesn't have a happy ending. The writing partners envisioned it as an ugly-cry three-hankie flick, with enough wit and humor to lighten the heavier moments.

Then along came movies like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars and Me Before You. Not wanting to seem derivative, Cardillo and Keith shifted gears.

"We had our manic-pixie dream girl, and we liked her," Keith said of the script he'd originally written more than a decade ago. "So we started thinking about what would happen if she didn't die, and this couple would face a whole new scenario and potentially an entire life together. That was our jumping-off point."

The result is Life Sentence, a dramedy about the YOLO mentality gone wild but suddenly brought back to earth. It debuts March 7 on the CW with a 13-episode order and sought-after actress Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars, Privileged) in the lead.

Its shift from art house idea to broadcast series is just the most recent pivot for Cardillo and Keith, who started out their Hollywood careers in front of the camera and are now thrilled to be behind it.

The writer-producers met in acting class at Warner Loughlin Studios in the mid-2000s and realized they spoke the same storytelling language.

They've been collaborating since, winning the New York Television Festival in 2013 with a spec script called We're Not Your Parents and, from that, developing Significant Mother, a comedy intended for digital distribution on CW Seed. Instead, it went straight to the network, where it aired for one season. Cardillo and Keith also worked together on the second season of Netflix's Fuller House.

Cardillo, a veteran of Passions, Suite Life on Deck, How I Met Your Mother and other series, said that acting started to take a back seat as their writing projects gained traction.

"We both felt like acting was fulfilling in some ways, but we've always wanted to tell stories of our own," she said recently from their production office near Warner Bros. "And we really like to be in control."

Keith, a comedy sketch writer who's appeared on a number of shows including Desperate Housewives, NCIS and Veronica Mars, joked during the same phone call about his "limited acting range" and prospects in the field. "I can play 'boyfriend' or 'other boyfriend,'" he said.

When it came to early scripts and pitches, they made a habit of shooting for the moon mainly, they said, because they didn't know any better. "Maybe we were too dumb or too optimistic to fail," Keith said.

Life Sentence is their first one-hour dramedy to hit a network schedule. Shot in Vancouver as a stand-in for any-quaint-town-USA, the ensemble piece takes their initial concept in new directions.

For instance, when Hale's character Stella Abbott gets a clean bill of health, her family begins to fall apart. Her parents and siblings hid some harsh realities and built a façade, it turns out, to protect her from stress during her eight-year cancer battle.

Keith and Cardillo pulled from their own experiences for that story arc. Keith's father suffers from Parkinson's disease, and Cardillo's dad had his own cancer scare (he's since recovered).

"My dad's doctor talked to the family about not 'dumping in,' meaning that we should be as positive as possible and not share our problems with the ill person," Cardillo said. "We used that in the show."

It's a situation ripe with dramatic possibility, Keith said, because family members did what they thought was right at the time, "and they're left to wonder later if they made bad decisions. They were essentially lying."

And of course there's the heroine's issue of her hasty marriage in Paris to a guy she'd known for a month. When she thought she was dying, it seemed like the most romantic thing in the world to do. Now that she's facing her future, presumably as a responsible adult, she's second-guessing herself.

Life Sentence will flesh out its older characters – Dylan Walsh and Gillian Vigman play her parents – though Hale's Stella will be the consistent focus, in keeping with a long line of strong female-centric series on the CW. And like those that have come before it on the young-skewing channel, it's meant to be "hopeful and charming" in a way that "doesn't take itself too seriously," Keith said.

The partners said their style is suited to a hybrid format like Life Sentence, with its core family dynamic and mix of comedy and romance. "Our strength doesn't lie so much in the setup-joke approach," Cardillo said. "We like finding humor in real situations."

There's been a learning curve in creating and running an hour-long show, and they've had advice and guidance from their executive producer and mentor Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town).

"It's a different skill set from acting," Keith said. "And it's really a 24/7 job where you have to be thinking of multiple things all at once."

An acting job, by comparison, might feel like "a vacation," Cardillo said, though she and Keith were quick to note that they're not pining for those days.

"It's a different skill set, and we're enjoying everything about it," he said. "Show running is our focus, and the blessings of it far outweigh the curse of how busy it is."