This truly is a golden age to be a British actor in American TV-land. With Hugh Laurie starring in the critically acclaimed House, and Lena Headey kicking mechanical arse in the Terminator spin off The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it seems British actors are popping up all over the place. This may be because most British actors are theatrically trained, or it might just be that they’re cheaper and less demanding than their American counterparts (although Hugh Laurie is currently earning the equivalent of a small countries gross GDP at the moment). Whatever the reasons, this trend looks set to continue with NBC’s latest offering Life.
In Life, British actor Damien Lewis plays Charlie Crews, an LA police officer who we are introduced to in the first episode just after his release from jail, serving 12 years of a life (see what they did there) sentence for the murder of his business partner and the partner’s family. The only thing is that Crews was wrongfully convicted after being set up. After successfully suing the city of LA. he’s left with an undisclosed yet hinted at $50 million, and whilst most people would head straight for the nearest beach and live like a king for the rest of their lives, Crews manages to get himself reinstated back onto the police force as a detective.
Like so many TV shows these days, Crews, of course, has to have a few quirks to his personality. After spending so long in jail, mostly in solitary for his own safety due to being a cop, he has grown a healthy distrust of his former friends and colleagues, who may or may not have been behind his incarceration. He has also embraced the philosophy of Zen, and taken to eating fresh fruit on an almost obsessive level. Partnered with former undercover narcotics agent Dani Reese (the depressingly attractive Sarah Shahi) who is now a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Crews works the homicide cases using his renewed outlook on life (it’s clever isn’t it?) whilst simultaneously investigating the evidence that led to his arrest.
To call this show a slow burner would be massive understatement. Whilst each show follows the formula: murder happens – Crews and Reese investigate – Crews annoys Reese – main suspect is cleared by Crews – murder solved, the ongoing mystery of Crews’ set up and which characters are involved is slowly drip fed to the audience. Each ongoing character is introduced via a series of documentary style interviews talking about their relationships with Crews, from his ex wife, former partner or the lead officer involved in his arrest. Everyone could be a suspect and, visa versa, everyone could be a red herring.
A show like this lives or dies on its choice of leading actor and, in lesser hands, all the foibles of a character like Charlie Crews could become annoying very quickly, but, thankfully, Damien Lewis really excels in the role. He has already proven himself to be a more than competent actor (witness his turn in the criminally overlooked film Keane) and in Life he portrays Crews as damaged and dangerous, but also shows a good comedic side (a good ongoing gag involving Crews’ reaction to all forms of new technology). You never forget that this is someone who has spent 12 years locked away from his life.
More surprising was the performance of Sarah Shahi as Crews’ partner, Dani Reese. According to IMDB she’s starred in shows like The L Word and Reba, shows that are not exactly the staple of my TV diet. Life is the first thing I’ve seen her in and she really is a revelation. Her chemistry with Crews, I believe, is the backbone to this show. Bouncing sharp dialog off each other, reigning in his character when he starts to veer off, and although ranking extremely highly in looks, she never lets you forget that she could probably take you down without a moment’s notice. Also kudos must go to the writers for never once playing any sort of sexual chemistry between the two characters that can so often complicate shows like this.
That’s not to say everything on Life works. Quite often the mood of the show jars with the content. An example being the episode that seemingly deals with a racist double murder, whilst an upbeat tune plays along in the background. Or the very first episode, where we’re introduced to the strange world of Crews, whilst investing the murder of a child. You feel the show gets lost a little. Does it want to be a gritty show like Law and Order or a quirky show like Monk?
Another slight criticism (and it may just be a personal one) is the already mentioned documentary-style interviews with the supporting cast. Nothing to do with the idea or execution, but because these are essentially used to help people catch up at the beginning of each episode. Great when on the idiot-box, but once collected on DVD, they become very irritating if watching episodes back to back. On about the eighth time of hearing his lawyer saying, “Life was his sentence…Life is what he got back,” I felt like I was screaming at the telly, “Yes, I get it!”
One thing that does work in favour of Life is the fact that because of the 2007-08 writers strike, there are only 11 episodes in the first series. A lot of American TV shows are guilty of trying to stretch out a storyline over 22 episodes, which means that shows tend to lag towards the middle of a series. But due to the relatively short first series run, the writers have no need to add filler, and thanks to this, the show seems to zip by at a good pace.
I’m always worried about getting behind a new American show, as it seems that in the past every show I enjoy has either been axed before its time (Firefly, Arrested Development) or dragged on so long that I just couldn’t care anymore (I’m looking at you CSI and 24). I hope Life (which is halfway through its second series in the US at the moment) gets a chance to shine as there is potential for a really good show. And if you missed the first showing on British telly thanks to it being shown on ITV17 or whichever channel (God forbid it should get in the way of a celebrity-doing-something show), this DVD is a great introduction.
ExtrasIn terms of extras, there’s not really much to write home about. Although there are a few features, they are all just short fillers. There is a cast/creators’ commentary on most of the episodes, a bloopers reel that you may miss if you blink, it’s that short, the cunningly-named deleted scenes that, on the disc I got, contained one uninteresting scene, a documentary that is made redundant after watching the show as it appears to just be a network promo, one scene shot from different angles that, in the end, when used, is in a completely different scene and, finally, three short, uninteresting making-ofs that all use a play on words of the shows title, Life. The only slight thing of interest is that Damien Lewis appears to keep his American accent even when being interviewed.
19 January 2009