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Reviewed by Will Harris
“ife”? Don’t talk to me about “Life.”
Yes, that’s an unabashed swiping of a line from Marvin the Paranoid Android, but it was also rather my mindset for much of last year when people assured me how good NBC’s new series, “Life,” was.
Having watched the pilot episode, there was certainly an interesting premise at hand: police officer Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) is arrested for murders he didn’t commit and spends 12 years in prison before the lack of DNA evidence clears him, and upon his release (which nets him a sizable financial settlement for false imprisonment), rejoins the force and, in between his regular duties, tries to find the real killers. There was also a solid supporting cast, with Adam Arkin as Ted Earley, a former prison mate of Charlie’s who now serves as his financial advisor, Sarah Shahi as Dani Reese, Charlie’s new partner, and Brent Sexton as Charlie’s former partner, Bobby Starks, who didn’t stand up for Charlie on the stand the way he should have. The problem, however, was that, while in the joint, Charlie got all Zen…and while I’m all about Zen in principle, the effect of this transformation in “Life” found Charlie coming across as quirky for the sake of being quirky, thereby making him more annoying than fascinating.
It’s never fair to base your opinions of a show solely on a pilot, however, so I always had every intention of investigating “Life: Season One” when it emerged on DVD. Having done so, I will gladly concede that, yes, over the course of the 11 episodes that make up the show’s strike-shortened first season, Charlie’s eccentricities do grow on you. More importantly, however, viewing the series all in a row like this really makes you aware of how methodically the show crawls forward, offering a payoff for those who’ve stuck with the show but doing it in a slow and gradual manner that’s getting harder to find on TV today.
That probably doesn’t sound like nearly as much of a compliment as it’s intended to be, so allow me to provide some clarification as to how it’s meant.
Given the current nature of television, “Life” is all but required to possess certain elements which will make it accessible to viewers who might just casually happen upon an episode while flipping through the channels. As such, the show is, at its heart, a procedural cop drama, with Charlie and Reese getting new cases each week and seeing them through to their conclusion. Always on the fringes of these single-episode storylines are bits and pieces surrounding Charlie’s past. He maintains a board in his home where he quietly but obsessively studies every piece of information about the crime that put him away from more than a decade, keeping track of all the players and trying to determine who the real murderer was. At the same time, he’s still coming to terms with what he’s lost as a result of his false imprisonment, most notably his marriage, but also his relationship with Bobby, his former partner. We watch Charlie evolve over the course of the season, and we find that many of his actions and reactions that seem so odd to others are methods and mannerisms which developed in order to allow him to cope with his fate. The landmark moment comes when someone questions him as to why he has such a fascination with fruit; his explanation is so philosophically reasonable that it transforms something that previously seemed desperately idiosyncratic into a trait that makes complete and total sense to the character.
Although “Life” does start off perhaps a bit too slow for those who might’ve begun tuning in solely to see the resolution of Charlie’s personal mystery (hence the favorable-but-not-spectacular ratings ), things really get rolling when one of the players turns up dead, resulting in Internal Affairs suspecting Charlie’s involvement. From that point on, the rollercoaster really begins in earnest, leading to a satisfactory conclusion to part of the mystery, at which point you’ll either have gotten a feel for the way “Life” is unfolding or you’ll get off the ride; but, personally, I’m sticking around.
Special Features: There are an impressive number of commentaries for a first-season series, with executive producers Rand Ravich, Far Shariat and Dan Sackhelm teaming up in various combinations with stars Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi and Alan Arkin. There are also several deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a few featurettes, including “Life Begins,” “Still Life,” “Fruits of Life,” and “’Life’s Questions Answered.” Hey, wow, they all work the name of the show into their titles! Awesome!