Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Life" as I know it...

"Chuck" is more fun. "Bionic Woman" has a hotter leading lady. "Journeyman" has gotten far better than I ever would have expected. But of the new NBC shows currently slinking along in the ratings abyss, the one I want to fight to save from the evil clutches of Ben Silverman is "Life."

[I should note that I'm assuming that even Silverman will see the advantages of keeping "Chuck" around assuming the strike ever ends (and I should add that I've written enough general praise for "Chuck" that my support for the show shouldn't be in doubt) and that "Bionic Woman" and "Journeyman" are both dead regardless of what happens.]

Through last week, "Life" has been averaging 8.1 million viewers for the season, but that's a bit of a cheat, since those numbers are inflated by a couple airings after "Bionic Woman" back before "Bionic Woman" went into the tank. That's more viewers per week than "Prison Break," a show that's basically running on fumes (plus a few dozen maniacal fans who scare me), and slightly fewer than "Chuck."

For more thoughts on "Life," follow through after the bump.

Click through...

If you still find yourself awake after whichever shows you watch in the uber-crowded 9 p.m. hour (I've got "Bionic" and "Gossip Girl" at home and "Criminal Minds" in the office), I recommend you check out tonight's "Life," titled "Farthingale."

It's probably the best "Life" episode of the season, a piece of very, very good semi-procedural drama. It's also the episode that best combines the show's attempts to have both serialized and one-off elements. On one hand, you have Damian Lewis' Charlie Crews and Sarah Shahi's Dani Reese investigating a man who was somehow blasted in half, mirroring the fact that he was also supporting two wives. In addition, though, Charlie is under IAD investigation for the death of the officer who put him in prison.

"Life" hasn't necessarily done a great job at progressing the central mystery of who framed Charlie and wife, though we know it relates to the Bank of Los Angeles shootout, 18 million missing dollars and basically every single member of the LAPD. His Wall of Blame has made for a great metaphorical visual image, but it has never been useful to me in terms of tracing cause and/or effect.

Certain parts of what were supposed to be the show's central mythology have been tossed out or pushed aside. After appearing in the pilot, for example, as Crews' main antagonist, Robin Weigert's Lt. Davis has morphed into just another occasionally disapproving boss (though this week's episode includes a reminder that she wanted Dani to inform on Charlie). Brent Sexton is also good as Charlie's former partner, but he's seemed more and more benign with each passing week and therefore a bit less interesting.

They've also struggled with the integration of Adam Arkin's Ted and Brooke Langton's Constance. Arkin has just been occasional comic relief, though we can just await the episode where Charlie begins to suspect that Ted has embezzled millions of dollars only to discover at the end that he was just reading the signs wrong. And Langton was so marginalized that it looked like she'd been written out as of last week, but she's back in a more constructive context this week.

What Shahi has done more than anything is not held the show back. That sounds like an insult, right? I swear it isn't. I just had a low regard for her as the season began and was pretty confident that if she were as wooden as I'd often thought her before, the show would suffer. While "Powerless" wasn't one of the show's best hours, it was a showcase for Shahi, who got to do more than just treat Crews with scorn.

Where the show has succeeded is in juxtaposing Lewis' wildly eccentric Crews with both Shahi's buttoned down (and yet seriously damaged) Dani and the weekly assortment of odd criminals and witnesses. Thankfully, Crews' quirkiness has slightly diminished, tempering my biggest concern after the so-so pilot. He still loves him some fruit and hardly a week goes by where he isn't astounded by the progression of technology and his Zen approach still causes Dani to roll her eyes, but Lewis -- certainly one of the five best actors on TV at this moment (with various HBO, FX and AMC things off the air) -- keeps him human. When the character is best used, he's just a cop with a different way of looking at the world. Nothing wrong with that.

I've loved Lewis' scenes with a number of guest stars, including the wonderful William Sanderson as a bum with a respect for oral hygiene in "What They Saw."

Part of why I was able to stick with "Without a Trace" through nearly three seasons (alas, I've lost the plot and could never, ever, ever catch up now, I'm sure) was that the slew of character-actor guest stars was superior, nearly of a "Law & Order" caliber. They got veteran actors to do serious work and it kept the procedural aspects of the show intriguing. Part of why none of the "CSIs" have ever held onto me is their generally bland casting. And part of why I periodically watch "Criminal Minds" is to see which comic actor or former child star (Jamie Kennedy this week!!!) will be stalking and killing women this week!

I think "Life" has the potential to be that sort of stunt casting vehicle because what actor wouldn't want to go head-to-head with Lewis, whose character uses intellectual processes to solve his crime, rather than straight forward clue-accumulation detective work. If the show were to continue, I would recommend using the season's fifth episode, "The Fallen Woman," as a template for potential adversaries. Even if his Russian accent occasionally vanished, Garrett Dillahunt's performance as Roman, a mobbed up version of Satan, was so instantly and consistently chilling that I've already suggested to Sepinwall that Dillahunt should be brought back every other week as a recurring villain, the show's Big Bad, if you will. If I am looking forward to "The Terminator Presents: Sarah Connor Chronicles" for one reason, it's to watch Summer Glau kick butt without ever changing her expression, but if I'm looking forward to it for a second reason it's that Dillahunt is at least recurring and possibly a regular.

Speaking of character actors I like seeing, do we prefer Patrick Fabian as a killer or just as a red herring, because he's pretty much settled into a career path where the second he appears on screen, I either assume he's a murderer ("Pushing Daisies"), a distraction from the real murderer (last night's "Bones") or that he's both a distraction and a murderer (wasn't that sortta what happened on "Veronica Mars"?).

Anyway, enough rambling. Watch "Life." That way you can be disappointed when it's cancelled.


  1. Anonymous7:12 PM

    I agree with all of that, especially about Dillahunt. I saw No Country For Old Men today, which I thought was generally excellent. My eyes lit up even brighter when I saw Dillahunt on the screen playing a completely different type of character than I was use to. Much like I think that David Foster Wallace should write every essay/feature in the NY Times, I could do with a little Dillahunt in every show/movie.

  2. I watched the pilot and didn't feel compelled to watch any additional episodes, but after reading this review I am now regretting that decision.

    Garrett Dillahunt is absolutely incredible in everything he does. He's one of my favorite actors. When I mention him to people, they've usually never heard of him. Very sad.

  3. Dillahunt doesn't exactly have the instantly identifiable credit that would let mainstream audiences identify him.

    While we all loved "Deadwood," on a global scale nobody watches it. Nobody watched "The Book of Daniel." Nobody watched "John From Cincinnati." Nobody, thankfully, watched "A Minute With Stan Hooper." Nobody saw "The Assassination of Jesse James." Nobody has seen "No Country For Old Men." Nobody's going to remember him from "Damages" (which nobody watched anyway).

    The collective audiences for all of those things is probably less than any single episode of "Hanana Montana."

    On IMDB, the credit that comes up when you search for his name is "One Life To Live."

    Maybe "The Terminator Presents Sarah Connor Chronicles" will be a hit (though it isn't even listed on his IMDB page, so who knows if he's even still in it) and it'll make him more mainstream recognizable?



  4. Anonymous10:54 PM


    It's strange to agree with most of your observations but disagree with your final assessment. If I read you correctly, you think Life has too many underwritten (credited cast) characters -- Weigert, Sexton, Langton (who should have just been written off), and Arkin (who was blown away as comic relief by Sanderson) -- but an acceptable big cop-little cop relationship between Lewis and Shahi and a good lead performance from Lewis. I agree with all that, and I think it has some nice cinematography to boot.

    I also agree that "[w]hen the character is best used, he's just a cop with a different way of looking at the world. Nothing wrong with that." But for me that potential was best displayed when Lewis got to play off of Cheryl White (the grieving mother in the pilot) and in the Sanderson episode. I guess I find it easier to see how 12 years in prison has made Crews empathetic to those who have suffered loss and those who fear confinement. There's some good potential for a character based show in that.

    But the show seems to be moving away from that type of story and, in the last few episodes (especially "Farthingale"), seemed to give off a Criminal Intent Lite vibe -- a basic procedural puzzle plot with a filigree of humor, cracked by the brilliant but broken man at the center of the show -- that just doesn't feel that fresh to me.


  5. Anon- I actually agree with you completely that at its best, "Life" should not only be able the cop who sees the world in a different way, but also understanding the roots of why he sees the world in that different way, being character-specific, rather than quirk-specific. And there's definitely a certain about of "House: Criminal Intent" to some of the lesser episodes (except that Charlie loves humanity and House distrusts it, which ought to be a good basis for a funny cross-over). With "Life," there's always the chance of the show becoming too indistinct and procedural (Which is what the upper brass at NBC would probably prefer). I hold out hope that Damian Lewis can single-handled keep that from happening...