It’s the oldest set-up in the cop show book. A pair of new partners meets for the first time at a crime scene (preferably a grisly one), and proceed to share quirks and express mutual distrust. Just so, the initial encounter for Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), in Life, involves the usual “feeling out” as they peruse the body of a young boy shot dead, his dog panting nearby. Dani’s the superior officer, as she says more than once, but Charlie thwarts her effort to take the lead with a single question regarding a missing “slug”: “Did you ask the dog?”
While the uniforms on the scene crack jokes, Dani looks depressed. This is the partner she’s stuck with, owing to her own bad past (she’s a recovering addict, busted, rehabbed, and on probation). And then Charlie does something idiosyncratic, approaching the dog and learning that indeed, not only does it have a bullet lodged in its bloody gut, but it’s buried a crucial clue nearby. And with that, not only are Charlie’s acute perception and intuitive genius established, but now Dani will have to make some decisions: will she stand up for his strange ways or will she fall in with the rest of her colleagues and judge him whacky?
This prevailing view of Charlie is premised on the cops’ effort to maintain a coherent front in the face what seems a calamitous mistake. Twelve years ago, Charlie was convicted of murder and sent to Pelican Bay. And now that he’s out, his fellow cops are feeling embarrassed, guilty, and less than generous. The premiere episode opens with a montage of documentary-style interviews with friends (“We all turned our back on Charlie Crews”), ex-wife (“We all thought he was guilty”), and prison doctor (“241 stitches”), intercut with shots of Charlie, the palest freckled white guy on the planet, being beaten by inmates and guards (“A cop doing time? Please!”, huffs his former partner). All this abuse, however, apparently led Charlie to his very own Zen philosophy, which he now dispenses on the outside when dealing with new partners, suspects, and dogs.
That’s not to say Charlie doesn’t have friends. His lawyer Constance Griffiths (Brooke Langton) invites him to her swank apartment for “fruit” (literally, melon), and his accountant/former prison mate Ted (Adam Arkin) lives in the room above his garage and admires his sexual energy (Charlie brings home nameless women, cavorts briefly and enthusiastically, them moves on). Charlie lives in a gigantic house, thanks to his settlement (terms undisclosed), which also guarantees he works for the PD, now promoted to detective. While Dani suspects that he must be angry after all those years inside, that he might be looking to, you know, get even with whoever set him up, Charlie insists he’s fine, that he only wants to enjoy breathing the air and solving the crimes.
He has an uncanny capacity for the latter, given the edict that damage and freakishness make all TV cops better. Sometimes, his discernment allows him to spot or smell details missed by less observant, bored cops, as when he notes that the murdered boy’s grieving stepfather might be indulging in marijuana and advises him to flush it since his house will be swarming all day with law enforcement (suggesting that Charlie has developed a sense of proportion in prison, seeing that under the circumstances, the possession charge is only tedious).
At other times, he’s socially “awkward.” When he essentially accuses the victim’s mother of dumping her incarcerated former husband cruelly, by mail, Dani calls out his meanness. And Charlie has an explanation, sort of:
If I had stayed in the moment if I had stayed present, it would have been okay. I was thinking about where we’re going next. So I left the moment when I should have been completely in the moment, which is when people usually leave the moment. The moment gets too much for ’em. The moment is pretty much always too much.
Most obviously, his elucidation constitutes a standard-issue cops-driving conversation, ratcheted up in order to illustrate Charlie’s oddity. But it’s also a useful summary of this premiere episode’s primary theme, that the moment really is the place to be. Though Charlie occasionally displays his out-of-timeness (his cell phone — so small it fits in his pocket — is a whole new experience, “like living in the future”), he also shows a talent for cutting off imminent manly fights that impresses Dani. Here, Jerry Sidell’s camerawork is key, framing Dani between two “manly” arms as she studies Charlie outtalking a couple of snarly prison guards (they’re back at Pelican Bay to interview an inmate, igniting all kinds of taunting from those bulgy-muscled guys who still live or work there). Or, as Charlie later sympathizes with a victim, he’s set against her home’s pale aqua walls, highlighting his blue eyes ion a way that makes him both soothing and quite spooky.
Such details of color and composition do the work usually handled by too much expository dialogue, granting access to Dani and Charlie’s thinking. As they leave the prison, they pass a wall marked with words that can mean variously: “No Re-Entry.” Life suggests on the one hand that Charlie can now traverse boundaries between populations, that he’s learned something profound from his incarceration. But it also hints that he’s crafty, performing his sometimes tedious quirk to get over, so his traversing will look innocuous. “If I overcome anger,” he tells the burly guard who threatens him, “I will be delightful and loved by everyone.” And then, just when he’s most annoying and predictably unpredictable, Charlie re-enters his life from somewhere else, finds another moment to occupy, and looks less innocuous, vengeful and mean. Then, Life looks more interesting too.