Detective Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) is taking the subway to meet his partner Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). A boy spots his gun and wonders if he’s ever shot anyone. Charlie answers with the sort of riddle that preoccupies him: “Violence against one is violence against all,” he says intently. “Violence against all is violence against myself.” The kid persists, “Yeah, but did you ever shoot anybody?”

It’s an apt opening for the second season of Life, a cop show that’s less about cases than it is about Crews’ trauma. Certainly, that trauma is deep, as he was framed for murder and sentenced to life in prison, spending 12 years incarcerated before he was exonerated and released. His time inside has granted him a more or less predictable new perspective and also, weirdness, endearing and unsettling. As the child on the subway gazes at him, looking for heroism or gore or something else he expects, Charlie offers his bit of zen — before he gives up a bit of self-affirmation: he’s killed “nobody,” he finishes, “that didn’t have it coming.”

This is Charlie’s gift. He teeters incessantly on the line between cocky and ridiculous, quirky and respectable — as if he understands the differences. It’s less important that he actually does understand than that he maintains this awkward balance. As he solves each weekly case (and oh yes, doggedly pursues the conspirators who put him away), Charlie uses his experience to rattle his colleagues and his suspects equally. While Dani is now saddled with her own not-quite guilt concerning her partner’s troubles (her father, it was revealed last season, had a hand in them), she’s also figured out how to handle the diurnal business (rolling her eyes, she sometimes edges over into Kathryn Erbe’s turf, infinitely patient with the charismatic eccentric). Dani of the Perfectly Tousled Locks watches Charlie for the rest of us, her responses shaping ours.

She’s waiting for Charlie as he emerges from the subway — in a shot from his perspective, the white light of the Southern California sky serving as her introduction, a shot like so many in this seri3es, evocative and beautifully composed. She invites him to their crime scene, at the river. “Don’t get your hopes up,” she cautions, “there isn’t any water in it.” At the site, they find a trunk with a body in it. Following, they find two more, each numbered. They’re on the trail of a serial killer who puts his victims in boxes and lets them suffocate.

It’s an investigation made for Charlie. When he and Dani head off to interview a victim’s widow, she asks whether he was alive when he went into the box. He answers honestly, yes. On the way out, in the elevator (a box in itself, emphasized by the forced angle shot), Dani wonders why he would tell a grieving relative such news, giving him a chance to act out his lack of social grace: “Because she asked me,” he says. “Is there something you want to ask me?” She rolls her eyes.

At least Dani has some experience dealing with Charlie. Their new captain, Tidwell (Donal Logue), a hockey fan just arrived from New York, is suitably mystified. Stretching his arms across the ancient couch he’s brought with him from back east (“Lots of dark nights of the soul spent on this baby,” he explains), Tidwell suggests that they’ll have their hands full solving this case, as choice of victims — a stripper, a investment banker, and a car shop owner — seems random. Oh no, no, assures Charlie, “Nothing is random.” When the captain wonders why, the detective submits his usual circular answer, “Because everything is connected.” As he begins to figure those connections, Dani resists, also as usual. When he asks about a phrase used to describe one of the victims (“She had that Canadian thing… happy for no reason”), Dani puts him off, saying, “I’d rather not think about it.”

Not so fast. “But to not think about it,” presses Charlie,” his blue eyes bright, “means you are thinking about it, because the it that you’re not thinking about is the it that…” Dani shakes her head. This is how Charlie survived in his own box, his mind in constant motion, contemplating the connections, parsing possibilities. He understands his targets, because he understands pain cut off from time and the need for revenge, the kind of self-righteousness premised on victimization. In another series, he’d be the villain.

RATING 6 / 10