Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What You Should Have Been Watching: Life

Law and Order, more than any other show before or since, has defined the procedural show. By strictly dividing its hour into halves (conveniently law and order), the long-running NBC legal drama has at once elevated the procedural and dumbed it down for the common viewer. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but given L&O's incredible success, it's not surprising that their model has run rampant across television (The Common Man is looking at you, every single show on CBS). As L&O has declined, other shows have shown real promise in revitalizing a formula that seemed static. House, for instance, has perfected the formula and consistently delivers an engaging, funny, and mind-bending hour every week.

Another program that has shown a great deal of promise over the last two years has been NBC's Life. Life takes the cop-procedural drama and adds a Veronica Mars-esque long-term story arc. Indeed, perhaps its best to think of the show as Veronica Mars for 30 year olds.

Damian Lewis (who will be instantly recognizable to any fans of HBO's excellent mini-series Band of Brothers, as Lt. Winters) stars as Charlie Crews, a Los Angeles detective who was framed for the murder of his best friends and sentenced to life in prison. When he is exonerated, Crews successfully sues the city and the department for several million dollars and to get his job back. Back on the outside and on the force, Crews uses the knowledge and skills he accrued in prison, as well as an offbeat, zen-like philosophy to solve crimes and annoy his partner (Sarah Shahi). In his spare time (since this is television), Crews spends his time searching for the people who murdered his friends and put him in jail.

It sounds gimmicky, and it is. But the shows producers exploit that gimmick, and Lewis's wonderful acting, to tremendous effect, allowing the crimes Lewis investigates to explore his mind and the nature of incarceration. Lewis shows off a manly intellectual curiosity, wanting to understand himself, human nature, and the world around him. While on the surface he seems calm, his obsessive and consuming quest to discover the truth belies an inner conflict that he struggles to contain. Particularly strong supporting performances by Adam Arkin and new cast member Donal Logue highlight Lewis's quirky performance, and ground what would otherwise be a heady, ethereal show about a millionaire cop in reality.

It's a testament to the shows producers that not a single moment of the show feels wasted. Indeed, every line uttered by the characters and every crime investigated add more depth to the characters, as they seem to grow and expand with each episode.

In its best recent episode, Crews and his partner are assigned to investigate a murder that occurred in a recreation of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. As Crews reenters "prison," his familiarity with the guard/prisoner relationship, comfort in the prison setting, and recognition of the power dynamics at play all reveal as much about the effects of the prison system in the United States as they do about Crews. And in the end, he understands and bonds with the killer, lovingly advising him how to handle his time in real jail. Crews knows, above all, that everyone is connected to everyone, and that those connections make each person stronger. And in the end, that's what this show is, a show that seeks to understand human nature and to embrace it. To explore the better, and the worse angels of its nature. The Common Man appreciates its complexity and its simplicity; its humor and its seriousness.

Life is available online at NBC.com if you'd like to get caught up in a different kind of detective show, and airs on Fridays on NBC at 10:00 Eastern.

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