Friday, September 28, 2007

Fall 2007 TV: Life

Life (NBC)

"Life was his sentence, life is what he got back," as we are told a hundred times in this opening episode. (Okay, twice.) I was expecting the entire pilot to hammer us over the head that bluntly, to be as humorless and full of faux-profundity. Instead, I found it to be thoughtful, cute, and compelling. I enjoyed this show.

Damian Lewis plays Charlie Crews, a cop sentenced to life for a triple homicide. After twelve years in prison, a reinvestigation proves the evidence to have been false; he was framed. Crews is released, and given a gigantic financial settlement and a job as a police detective. But the years in prison have changed him. Where before (we are told) he was coldly by-the-book, now he's more aware, more sympathetic, more contemplative. He's also packed full of the Zen teachings he studied while in prison, and he loves to eat fruit.

Crews could've been a collection of quirks rather than a character, but Lewis humanizes him and makes him identifiable as someone trying to get a second chance at life. I liked this character a lot. He probably goes to the "Zen Sayings 101" well a little too often, but it feels to me more like an intentional character flaw rather than a flaw in the writing. He's trying a little too hard to be Zen, and frequently failing, as when he keeps harassing the man who married his ex-wife, or when he gets a little too attached to his expensive new car.

At least his partner is there to check him. "That's Zen," she observes of one of his remarks. "Is it?" he replies. "That's Zen, too." "Is it?" "Say 'is it' again and I'll shoot you." His partner Dani Reese is played by Sarah Shahi, who is one of those tiny supermodels who so often become cops on TV. She doesn't look like a cop, but I liked her; there's a lot of light, humorous interplay between her and Crews. She's sharp-tongued, but willing to listen to and learn from Crews, and she's got plenty of flaws of her own -- drug-related, apparently -- which is why she got stuck as Crews' partner. And also the reason for her gratuitous shower scene: she gets sprayed with cocaine (or some kind of white powdery drug, anyway) at a crime scene, and she freaks out, strips down to her underwear, and showers off right there in the crack den. Gratuitous, yes, but I'm all right with that.

Robin Weigert (Deadwood's Calamity Jane, all cleaned up and pretty) is Crews and Reese's lieutenant, and looking to nail Crews for any kind of infraction. She apparently had some part in the vast conspiracy that landed him in jail. And Adam Arkin is financial advisor for Crews' new fortune. He was in jail with Crews for insider trading, and Crews saved his life. I'm very pleased to see both Weigert and Arkin as part of this show, but they didn't have an awful lot of work to do in the pilot. Maybe as the series progresses we'll see more of them, which would be nice.

And Brooke Langton is Constance, the lawyer who got Crews sprung from jail. There's a deep connection between them that isn't fully explained in the pilot; it could simply be mutual attraction, but it seems deeper, and sadder, than that. I suspect Constance is somehow linked to one of the people Crews was framed for murdering (the crime isn't fully explained in the pilot, either).

There are several mysteries left dangling at the end of this first hour, chief among them being who framed Crews, but unlike, say, Bionic Woman, I became invested in the mysteries because I was invested in the characters. I'd like to learn more about Crews and Reese, and what has happened to them in the past -- and I consider that an accomplishment, and enough to hook me in.

There are a few things that didn't quite work for me. As I said, Crews tends to go Zen mystic a bit too often. And I thought it was bizarre that the entire police department seems to despise Crews, rather than being happy one of their own was exonerated. There's a line in the show about something Crews did to a corrections officer while he was in prison, but whatever that incident was, it can't have soured everybody against him. Maybe they're all in the conspiracy that framed him!

Life was a nifty little surprise. I'm not wildly enthusiastic, but it's a nicely made show. (And it didn't feel to me at all like a retread of House, as many critics have been suggesting. Both shows are about people who do things differently, but the comparison begins and ends there.) I'll keep tuning in.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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