If it was Detective Charlie Crews’ colossal misfortune to have been framed for a grisly triple homicide 12 years ago and subsequently sentenced to life in prison, then it’s his quite good fortune now not only to have been exonerated for this crime and received a sizeable settlement and his job back, yes, but also to be played by Damian Lewis. A vastly underrated British actor who has flourished in television mini-series (Band of Brothers, The Forsyte Sage) and the odd film (his exceptional turn in the all but unseen Keane still haunts), Lewis has been an actor in search of the proper venue (long form television series) and character for his talents for some time. And so, to his good fortune, then, the role of Charlie Crews.
Freshly sprung from prison and back on the force after 12 brutal years of imprisonment, it takes a while for Crews to find his bearings in a world rendered mostly unfamiliar. His previous life lies in ruins – his wife has divorced him, his friends have abandoned him, almost every vestige of his identity has been beaten out of him. Enlightened by the Zen philosophy and meditation he adopted while in the clink, he emerges from prison as a man reborn, a man struggling to come to terms with his past even as he tries to make a clean break from it, a man who wants to be “the un-wobbling pivot at the center of an ever revolving universe” (as he tells his ex-wife).
Of course, the $50 million wrongful imprisonment settlement he reaches with the city of Los Angeles goes a long way to helping with his adjustment. Setting up shop in a sprawling mansion; hiring an ex-white collar con he befriended in prison to manage his money (Adam Arkin, the series’ reliable comic relief); throwing his money on whatever strikes his fancy (orange groves? Solar energy farms? Souped-up gang cars? Sure, why not!); hooking up with a different floozy every night — one would think that he’d be content to take the money and run. Or at least not want to dive back in to the fray of police work — but that’s just what he does. Why they hire him back, and why they actually give him a sizeable promotion (he went from beat cop to detective?) is never addressed explicitly. Nor, are his motivations, at least at first.
When asked by his new, no-nonsense partner Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), why he would want to come back and work as a cop, Crews replies that the one thing that kept him sane in prison was that he had been, and always would be, a cop. What else would he do now? Reese doesn’t quite believe him and his too pat reasoning, and neither do we. With seemingly unlimited funds at his disposal from the settlement, and 12 years of pent up rage, one would think that Crews would be back solely to focus on uncovering his framers and exact some revenge. And one would be right – mostly.
The mostly because most of the time on the show, the Crews’ quest for vengeance is submerged beneath his deliberately quirky exterior, and here’s where Lewis comes in. Just as it takes a while for Crews to get his bearings, so does it take a while for Lewis to get his own bearings as Crews. Lewis plays him out of the gate with an edgy eccentricity, all motor mouthed non-sequiturs and jitteriness, a bundle of tics.
He’s a loose cannon, solving crimes with outside the box thinking that verges on the insane (“Did anyone ask the dog?” is his first question when being presented with a crime scene of a murdered little boy, his canine friend watching over him), using a combination of solid detective work and Zen intuition (think Dale Cooper, minus the coffee obsession). Crews regards the world with an admixture of childlike wonder and cracked insouciance, typical fish out of water type scenario.
But if this had been it, Crews would have little to recommend himself, little to set him apart from all the other cops on all the other procedurals on TV. It’s all in what Lewis brings to the man beneath the loopiness, what we see in Lewis face — hardened and haunted beneath the wry grins — what it subtly reveals in moments when no one is looking, and what it doesn’t.
There’s a world weariness there that seems almost depthless, you can see his life’s great tragedy written out in every crease, you can see that all the surface tics are just a front, but also that they are the only thing keeping him from flying apart. His face hides everything and nothing. It’s a brauva performance, and sets Life apart from the police procedural pack. (In many ways, it’s quite similar to Lewis’ compatriot Hugh Laurie’s performance on House)
Because without Lewis, Life is a solid if mostly unremarkable program, operating somewhere between willfully quirky and gruesome for gruesome’s sake, tone wise. It’s mostly episodic, crime of the week fare, Crews and Reese solving some whacked out murder despite (or probably because of) their personal differences. The best of these stand alone cases hit a tangent on, or even directly complement, the overarching narrative arc of Crews trying to figure out who framed him. “Away from Her”, an early episode, has the partners investigating a suspicious car accident in which a husband may or may not have killed his wife in a car accident that may or may not have been staged, and then may or may not have forgotten it.
This is interwoven with Crews trying to reconcile with, or at least understand, his ex-wife, as well as trying to figure out what became of the little girl who was the only survivor of the massacre he was accused of (one piece of the puzzle). While the episode’s case has nothing directly to do with Crews’ ongoing investigation, or his personal life, all the themes brought up in each instance play off one another really well, achieving a nice sort of harmonic balance.
Other episodes stand on strength of character alone. Mid-season standout “Powerless” (directed by John Dahl, who seems to have discovered a second career as a TV director now that his excellent brand of old school neo-noir films aren’t in vogue anymore) finds Reese front and center, confronting her own weaknesses and demons for alcohol and dangerous men in a standoff with a serial rapist. Shahi quietly steals the spotlight and acting chops away from Lewis, at least for one episode, and hints that Life, if given a chance, need not be a one man show. Reese’s character, heretofore two dimensional, mostly used as a foil for Crews’ lunacy, is finally give space to breathe and fill out – the series is the better for it.
The end of the abbreviated season (11 episodes due to the writers’ strike) moves the focus squarely on to Crews’ ongoing investigation, to mixed results. One of the key’s to the show’s success is in striking a balance between the demands of viewers in it for the long haul, and the more casual audience who like things wrapped up nicely in 43 minutes. Crews’ narrative arc is interesting enough to hook you in to the show, and its constant undertow is enough to keep you coming back, but it doesn’t dominate the show to the point where you require a road map and a detailed synopsis if you miss and episode.
We want to know what happens, but we don’t mind if the show takes its sweet time with it, and even if it disappears for a bit. Plus, Crews has the whole developing conspiracy neatly mapped out in a secret room in his mansion, with all the major players and suspects and their relationships to one another slapped up on a wall. This shows up from time to time to remind us, but isn’t insistent. I like the motif of him standing with his back to the camera in front of the wall – it’s set up so that it looks like all the branches and strands are at the same time coming out of his head and trying to force their way in.
I don’t know if the producers and writers thought they might not get picked up for 2008 and thus wanted to give the show an approximation of a definitive end, or if they struck some deal with the network where they had to cook up something quick in order to come back, but the (partial) solving of the case by Crews in the last two episodes feels a bit forced and cheap, especially for viewers who were looking forward to an ever deepening conspiracy that could play out over several seasons.
To a viewer who likes the dramatic slow boil, Crews apprehension of the real killer seems to come out of left field. Still, it’s not the whole answer – it’s not even half the answer, it’s just the opening of a whole new level of the case, one which probably will sustain and deepen now that Life has been renewed and is deep into its second season on NBC.
Life arrives on DVD spread across three discs, with a smattering of extra features, mostly in the commentary department. The one for the pilot episode suffers from too many voices in the booth but makes some interesting points, especially with the composition of several key shots (how Crews is always shown moving towards, or resting in, light, as a counterpoint to reinforce with emergence from the perpetual night of prison). Lewis’ voice is always the easiest to pick out, reverting back to his British accent (he is also the most impish of the commentators, a nice complement to his character).
The issue of the occasional use of faux documentary footage (these segments, interviews with Crews’ former colleagues and others involved in the case, pepper the episodes and drive the main arc) is brought up, and the producers claim that though gimmicky, the device is vital, drawing the audience into it more closely by giving the verisimilitude of authenticity. They claim also to have been inspired by both Cops and Errol Morris, which odd pairing I’ve never heard before, and doubt ever will again.
Disc Two houses the stand alone features, which are mostly of the behind the scenes/interview with cast and crew variety. Lewis mistakenly classifies the show as a dramedy (which it isn’t, not even close), but emphasizes the character based nature of the show (which, yes), and how it all hinges really on the two leads, and humbly defers to the talents of the rest of the cast. Another feature covers the filming of the final two episodes, and summarizes all the exposition and action in five minute so tidily I wonder why I watched the last episodes at all. Incidental deleted scenes are smattered around the remainder of the discs, none of which really add anything and were probably just cut for time constraints.