Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life - The One I Didn't Have A Title For

I have to confess that one of the shows I was really looking forward to this season was Life. It's not that there aren't a lot of attractive shows on Wednesday nights this season. Between Back To You, Private Practice, Bionic Woman, Kitchen Nightmares, and Dirty Sexy Money, not to mention some of the returning series on the night (Criminal Minds and yeah, CSI: New York) Wednesday night has become one of the most VCR intensive nights on my personal schedule. But through it all, the show that I wanted to see the most was not Bionic Woman (it's really high on the list but as I type this I still haven't watched it yet) or Kitchen Nightmares (which is vaguely disappointing given some of the changes in format from the original British series), but rather Life. I knew I wanted to see it because I liked the lead actor (Damien Lewis who I enjoyed tremendously in Band Of Brothers) and I found the premise of a cop restored to duty as part of a settlement after being exonerated for a murder he did not commit to be fascinatingly original, or at least something not seen in a very long time. For me the show was sort of like that special package under the Christmas tree back when you were a kid; the one you couldn't wait to open even as you dreaded the possibility what was inside couldn't possibly measure up to what you were expecting from looking at the outside. So, did the reality of Life measure up to what I was expecting? To a large degree, yes. There are rough patches to be sure but with time and a little recognition of what needs to be tweaked, this show could really shine.

The writers of Life were wise enough to use a framing sequence to get the basic story of Charlie Crews. The sequence is a documentary about the Crews case – bad lighting and all – that is used to reveal the key points that we need to know. He was an ordinary cop who was intent on doing his twenty and out until he was convicted of a triple murder. He spent twelve years in prison where for the first year he was regularly beaten by other inmates because he had been a cop (and it looked as though at least one of the guards also got in on the action), before his new lawyer managed to get the evidence re-examined and the case against him collapsed. While he was in prison his wife divorced him and (based on the name displayed during her sequence of the documentary) remarried. A lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles not only resulted in him getting an undisclosed (but very big) cash settlement but also restoring him to the police department as a detective. That description probably took longer for me to type than it took to show on the screen (admittedly that may be because I was playing Poker online as I write this paragraph) but the sequence does a very effective job of introducing Charlie without us seeing him and gets his personal details out of the way rather than spend most of the episode revealing them to us. And it's important because the important parts – for the viewer – of Charlie Crews are all tied to what happened after that triple homicide. This means that the bulk of the episode is not spent discovering the principal character but in solving a case and starting to know the people who surround Charlie.

Of these people the most important is his new partner Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Charlie knows there's something bad in her past that is the reason why she's partnered with him, but she's not in a mood to open up. As far as she's willing to let him know it was all "luck of the draw." Part of her reluctance to confide in him comes from not knowing if she can trust him. As another cop puts it later puts it in a later scene "How do you know he's going to be there with you when you go through a door?" Dani undercuts this by pointing out that the cop's partner is Charlie's old partner, the one who didn't stand by him during when he was first accused of murder, but you know that she has to be wondering something similar herself. This question of whether or not to trust plays out in the episode. When confronted by her commander Lieutenant Davis (Robin Weigert, looking totally different from her last role as Calamity Jane in Deadwood) who wants something that she can use to get Charlie off the force she gives up something. After all she doesn't know Charlie, doesn't owe him anything and doesn't know if he'll be there for her going through a door. Her attitude changes when he does do the equivalent of going through a door for her and helps her a shotgun blast results in her being covered from head to toe in cocaine. Dani's a drug addict you see, in rehab and clean for almost two years. In the scene after Charlie showers the drugs off of Dani no words are spoken but each partner knows where the other stands.

I'd like to say that the case that Charlie and Dani were investigating was somehow deep or significant, and if you're someone who thinks that any crime involving a child is deep and significant, then it was. However the investigation itself was yet another way for us to get to know Charlie and to develop the relationship between Charlie and Dani. The two meet at their first case together. A young boy has been shot to death though there's no sign of any sexual molestation. The boy's dog, a golden retriever, is lying down on the ground some distance from the boy, something which immediately piques Charlie's interest. He soon discovers that the bullet that killed the boy lodged in the dog. He also discovers why the dog is so far from his master – he bit off the finger of what is presumed to be the killer. Charlie and Dani next go off to interview the boy's mother and step-father. Charlie almost immediately detects that the step-father is a recreational user of marijuana and also that he is almost certainly not the killer – for one thing he still has all his fingers and for another he is clearly feeling grief. He makes a very clear suggestion that the man flush his pot down the toilet – flush twice to make sure. The interview with the mother doesn't go nearly as well. It is discovered that the boy's natural father was heavily involved in drugs and when he went to prison the second time she divorced him. Charlie says "You just dropped the papers in the mail." It tells us a bit more about Charlie and his demons – his wife divorced him while in prison – but it upsets both the mother and Dani. He apologizes to Dani – he wasn't in the moment, he was thinking about where they had to go next. Where they had to go next was prison, to talk to the boy's father. The man is bitter at cops but knows that his enemies in prison wouldn't go after his son. Charlie explains it – everyone in prison has family so they're off limits. The prison scene is more important because we find out something more about Charlie. The guards are giving him a real hard time and we learn that while he may have been innocent of the crime he was convicted of he wasn't entirely a choir boy while he was in prison. There was an incident with a guard in the Pelican Bay Federal Prison that the guards in this facility still feel anger over.

A major break in the case comes when one of the boy's friends is interviewed. Both boys belonged to a Boy Scout troop made up of the children of cons and ex-cons. The child Dani is interviewing is scared, intimidated and unwilling to talk. Predictably it is Charlie who breaks through his defences – first by getting him to laugh by hugging and extremely reluctant Dani and then by telling him that he knew there was something that he was bottling up and that he wanted to tell. He tells the detectives that someone claiming to be a lawyer had IM'd the murdered boy, who wanted to get his father out of prison, claiming that for a certain amount of money he'd reveal some technical and procedural errors in the father's case, which would be enough to get him out. Talking to the boy's mother again, and making up for his earlier behaviour, Charlie discovers that the boy had stolen money and some jewellery from his parents in order to pay for the information. The only someone with ties to the scout troop would know what his online identity is. So it's somewhat surprising when the finger that the dog bit off comes back to a crack addict with no fixed address. They track him down and during a gun battle with Dani and Charlie (which leads to the situation with the cocaine) he admits to being there but that someone named Artie killed the boy. Dani and Charlie both agree that the addict, who Charlie shot and then comforted as he died, wasn't smart enough to pull off the scam. There is a parent named Arthur on the boy's Scout contact list, and while they can't prove that he committed the murder, his contacts with the crack addict are enough to get him sent back to prison on a parole violation. Charlie and Dani get him sent to the same prison as the boy's father and let him know it; the fear is enough to get him to confess.

But as I said earlier, the first episode of this show was about getting to know the character of Charlie Crews and to a lesser extent Dani Reese. Both characters are damaged by their experiences. Dani compensates for no longer being on drugs by drinking too much (apparently) and engaging in anonymous sex. There's a scene in which she gets out of bed in and dresses in an apartment littered with beer bottles, and the man in bed with her comments that they don't even know each other's names. Her reply is "If you don't know your name you can't contact me." Charlie's quirks are a lot easier to understand. His adherence to the principles of Zen, if imperfect, is what helped him survive in a prison – apparently the Special Handling Unit at Pelican Bay – where inmates spend virtually their entire day in isolation. His seeming addiction to fresh fruit, a fast car (a Bentley – probably a Flying Spur or a Continental GT), a big house, and sex with very attractive women are all probably a reaction to being denied the simple pleasures that even an ordinary cop would take for granted. Now that he's wealthy, because of the settlement from his wrongly conviction he can afford to go overboard with exotic fruits (and an orange grove), an exotic car, and a huge house. At the same time being in prison has hurt him. It is obvious in the fact that he doesn't understand certain aspects of technology – cell phones that are smaller than a Star Trek communicator and not only take pictures but can send and receive them as well, Google (which is nine years old today – in other words was created three years after Charlie went to prison), and instant messaging (AOL Instant Messenger debuted the year that Charlie went to prison). It's less obvious in some of his behaviours. He seems to talk incessantly – probably a response to extensive time spent in isolation – and his palatial house is largely unfurnished. While he has the big house he seems to restrict his presence in it to a fraction of its actual size. And he holds grudges. His response to his father's decision to remarry is to not attend the wedding; he holds his father responsible for his mother's death because she was forbidden from seeing Charlie in prison by his father. As he tells his lawyer Constance, "No Zen for daddy." No Zen either for the people responsible for putting him in prison for a crime he didn't commit. In what is going to be a major ongoing plot feature, Charlie has a room of his house devoted to connecting the people who are involved in the conspiracy that put him in prison. And while he may be very well be right – indeed is probably right if the behaviour of Lt. Davis – that doesn't necessarily mean that he isn't also suffering from paranoia. The old saying is that "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you don't have enemies," but surely it is equally true that just because you have enemies doesn't mean you're not paranoid.

Life has an excellent cast. Damian Lewis is great as the somewhat manic and frequently strange Charlie Crews. Not only is there no trace of his British accent but his accent and manner are very different from his previous role as an American, Major Richard Winters in Band Of Brothers. Lewis's skill as an actor shines through in the role of Charlie, which in turn is the key element of the show. As Reese, Sarah Shahi hides her incredible beauty except in the scene where she is getting out of bed after her one night stand. For the rest of the episode her hair is pulled back severely and she comes across as a working cop. As a cop her character is more than competent and yet she is truly playing Watson to Charlie's Holmes. Robin Weigert hasn't had a chance to show much as Charlie and Dani's boss; as yet she hasn't had a scene with Charlie, though her two scenes with Dani have had a sort of veiled menace to them. Adam Arkin put in a fairly nondescript performance as Ted, a former CEO who was convicted of stock fraud and whose life was saved in prison by Charlie. Ted is now Charlie's financial advisor and lives in a room above his garage. I suspect that Ted, at least initially, is there to provide a certain amount of comic relief. Finally there's Brook Langton as Charlie's lawyer Constance, the woman who reopened his case and got him exonerated. Again she doesn't get much to do in the first episode; a couple of scenes in the "documentary" and one scene in her apartment where they talk about Charlie's attitude to his father but where the unrequited feelings that Constance has to her client. (Of course some of this might have to do with Langton replacing Melissa Sagemiller as Constance after the pilot was shot.)

Life is one of those shows where there weren't a lot of expectations going in. NBC did a rather poor job of promoting the show and a number of reviewers have lumped the series in the "police procedural" bin. It's better than that. This is a show that rises and falls on just how intrigued we are by the initial premise and the lead characters. The premise is novel enough to be intriguing but not so farfetched as to stretch credibility beyond the breaking point – I can't help but thinking of an ABC show called Blind Justice which did
just that. It's not perfect. It does try to provide us with a ton of information about Charlie and Dani too quickly. It does emphasise Charlie's various quirks and annoying habits. It does use the first case they work together more as a bonding experience and a way for them – and us – to get to know each other. I have a sense that a lot of these elements are going to be toned down in future episodes. The strength of the show is Lewis. He's an outstanding actor and truly a delight to watch, quirks and all. While there are things that need work in this show I sincerely believe that for the most part it succeeds and is a remarkably enjoyable contrast to the other crime show airing at the same hour, CSI: New York. I'll definitely keep watching.

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