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A sign of 'Life' on NBC: a potentially great show

September 26, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

NBC's new drama "Life" is the sort of show that makes a person want to write things that will be picked up for ad copy. Like: "If you only watch one new show this fall, watch 'Life.' " Or: "Terrific cast, terrific writing, and even when simply eating a pear, Damian Lewis sets a whole new standard for the broken hero genre." Not for the ad, but because they're true. And since "Life" has gotten zero buzz, there's a chance it will have a hard time finding an audience. Which would be terrible, since it promises to be such a great show.

This despite its obviously derivative nature: Writer Rand Ravich has created the latest "Monk" by way of "House." "Life" follows the strange and painful tale of LAPD detective Charlie Crews. Twelve years ago, Charlie was convicted of a gruesome triple homicide and sentenced to life. Only he didn't do it, see, as his heroic and lovely attorney Constance (Brooke Langton) proved. So now Crews is a free man, or as free as he can be after all the physical and psychological damage done to him in prison, with a $50-million settlement and a chance to return to the force as a detective.

But that psychological damage is pretty extensive, with the result that Crews is more than a bit strange. Brilliant but strange. "Did you ask the dog?" he asks with an owl-like tilt of his head when officers are looking for a bullet at a crime scene. And, of course, the dog knows.

With the watchful half-smile and soft monotone of a psychopath and the sudden, stilted movements of a space alien, Crews is no sharp-tongued misanthrope or lovable neurotic. He's just Zen to the point of disassociation. "You don't have to understand here to be here," he tells his new partner, Dani (Sarah Shahi), who is teamed with Crews partly as punishment for past drug abuse.

Playing it long and lugubrious but with a tantalizing twinkle, Lewis (last seen in the States as the hateful husband in "The Forsyte Saga") may well wrest the mantle of sexiest troubled American played by a Brit away from Hugh Laurie. Like House, Crews has been damaged by the profession he serves; like House, he sees things that other people miss. But Crews is working toward transformation. His serenity, however, is obviously self-imposed and at times, barely there, a thin mask of hard-won wisdom veiling the pain and anger within.

"Don't you have anything better to do?" asks the husband of Crews' ex-wife after Crews has pulled him over, yet again, for some minor traffic infraction.

"No, sir," Crews says, taking in the glory of a perfect Los Angeles day. "Not at this moment."

L.A. sparkles in "Life," awash in sunshine and possibility, the perfect second chance Crews is doing his best to enjoy. He lives in a gorgeous mansion with Ted, a CEO busted for insider trading whom Crews met in prison. Apparently the gods were smiling on "Life's" casting director because Ted, who now manages Crews' money, is played by Adam Arkin. "And you live in his garage?" he is asked at one point. "I live in an apartment above his garage," he answers.

Along with Ted, Crews also has some pretty terrific quirks to keep him real -- no furniture, a passion for fresh fruit, a penchant for self-help tapes, a string of happy one-night stands, and a nice, dark sense of humor.

"That's a phone," he tells his former partner who wants to take his picture.

"It's got a camera in it. Where have you been?"

"Me, I've been in federal maximum security prison," Charlie answers with ironic good cheer.

As his feisty, smart partner, Shahi ("The L-Word") matches Lewis beat for beat. "Say 'Is it?' one more time and I'll shoot you," she tells Charlie when he lapses into a Zen-like repetition. Dani has her own troubles, mostly in the form of a Lt. Davis (a wonderfully hard-as-nails Robin Weigert) who seems intent on using Dani's drug issues to coerce her into making a case against Crews -- whom Davis clearly wants off the force.

A lot of people don't think Crews should be back on the force. The show opens as if it were a documentary investigating Crews' life -- here is his former partner, his former wife, explaining why they thought he did it -- and that conceit continues through early episodes, so we learn there are some people who still think he's guilty. But Charlie knows that if he's not, someone is, and the arc of the show, along with the various cases he and Dani solve, will be his quest for answers, and possibly vengeance.

Meanwhile, he's got fruit to eat, $50 mil to spend and a new lease on life. As, it seems, do we.




Where: NBC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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