NBC’s “Life” is a gritty, off-the-wall drama that dabbles in the deep and the deadpan. A conspiracy copshow with lots of room for character development, director David Semel, who delivered “Heroes'” impressive debut last season, has helmed a compelling pilot; the show, though, could use a better title and a little more promotion.
Continuing what seems to be this season’s trend of British imports and oddball characters, Damian Lewis stars as Charlie Crews, a cop who has been exonerated after spending 12 years in federal prison for a triple murder that his brilliant lawyer (Brooke Langton) finally proves he didn’t commit. Part of his settlement, in addition to a large chunk of change, includes being reinstated to the LAPD as detective.
Crews’ return to the force four months after his release comes much to the dismay of many in the force. His new partner Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi) is dealing with a past of her own; she’s a recovering drug addict who made it through rehab, but is so low on the totem pole she has no option but to work with Crews. A Latina, she has the support of Lt. Karen Davis (Robin Weigert) who encourages her to report Crews’ slightest infraction in exchange for her own absolution.
Crews is a bit like Dr. House, seemingly ambivalent about his current condition and indifferent to the fact that he makes most people uncomfortable with his quirky approach to the job. His ex-partner, possibly part of his frame-up, claims Crews was a by-the-book cop before his incarceration. Crews is still by the book, but that book is now “The Path to Zen.” He has an extreme passion for fruit — pears, oranges and mangoes to be exact — and treats victims and witnesses alike with an alarming intimacy.
Slowly, though, he manages to strike an odd, but refreshingly sexual tension-free balance with Reese. She understands what it’s like to be ostracized and helps him navigate back into a world of technological advances that he missed while in jail. Also on hand to help out is Ted Early, a former CEO and ex-con turned financial advisor living in a room above Crews’ garage, beautifully underplayed by Adam Arkin.
The pilot — and one would assume the show — filmed as part documentary, part copshow, vacillates between interviews about Crews’ murder trial and his current workload with the department. With Crews, show creator and writer Rand Ravich has developed an engaging character — part Count of Monte Cristo with a little bit of Adrian Monk — always muttering self-help and anger management dictums to himself. It’s unclear just how damaged Crews is from prison. Is he just biding time on the force so he can exact his revenge or is he truly compelled to solve crimes so to save people from a similar fate to his?
Lewis keeps viewers guessing, imbuing Crews with an uneasy likability with just a touch of malice. His quirky mannerisms don’t overwhelm the plot, and the show does strikes a nice balance between whimsy and its much darker backstory. Like “Lost” or “The Fugitive,” “Life” has the leeway to move the plot forward or backward without losing continuity or interest.