Hindsight: Life


Damian Lewis in Life

Original Air Dates: 2007-2009 on NBC

Creator: Rand Ravich
Starring: Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Brent Sexton, Adam Arkin, Donal Logue

Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Brent Sexton, Adam Arkin, Donal Logue

Life, as a series, defies explanation in a lot of ways. It includes some of the funniest comedy and most intense drama to hit network television in the last few years. Damian Lewis leads a phenomenal cast, and Rand Ravich does the same with a remarkable production team. The show is a real masterpiece of storytelling and of the serial television medium. It is not, as touted, a mere cop show laced with conspiracy. The overarching plotline is actually one of the most cohesive I’ve ever seen, and the way in which each piece is slowly revealed is massively enjoyable and more than its fair share of brilliant. Plus, it has moments where it is just plain weird, and while that may not appeal to everyone, I definitely count it as a plus.

Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi

STRENGTHS

  • Charlie Crews/Damian Lewis
    Of all the enigmatic characters on television, he really does take the cake. Classically trained English actor Lewis mastered all angles of an incredibly complicated personality. Crews is at once the most serious and most comedic character on the show. His Zen attitude and lackadaisical ponderings about life portray a happy, perhaps slightly damaged, but overall delightful and innocuous personality. The intensity of his search to find out who framed him and the moments where he reverts back to cutthroat prison instincts show what is almost an entirely different character. Just the premise of who (and what) Charlie Crews is is possibly the most fascinating part of the show. Lewis’ performance brings him completely to life – no pun intended, he really does make the show.
  • The Conspiracy Plotline
    Seems like every show these days, even the procedurals, are killing themselves to create a ridiculously complicated storyline. Many of these attempts are sad and far from successful. But Life houses one of the best series-long conspiracy arcs I’ve ever seen. It unfolds very slowly, but each piece is obviously a part of the whole – as opposed to being tacked on in an attempt to hold interest. There is very much a sense of “down the rabbit hole” in the conspiracy surrounding the arrest of Charlie Crews. It is marvelously gray-area. Not because we can’t tell if the villains are truly bad or not, necessarily, but because we just can’t tell who they are until it is definitively revealed. It’s a true puzzle. And it stretches through the entire show, instead of popping up every few episodes with a major development and then slipping back into the woodwork until a writer has another idea on how to keep it going.
  • The Visuals
    The script may be the great strength of the show, but it is also an aesthetic delight. It was shot almost entirely on-location, so there’s a real sense of Los Angeles as not just a locale, but a setting in the manner of that word as a literary term. The overall visual tone is gritty, but sunny, like a slightly cartoonish take on the seediness. Colorful, vast settings combined with dark contained areas combined with staged comic scenes, and a mixture of stillshots and moving camera work make Life a lot more visually intriguing than your average crime/cop show, and the effect helps to enhance the mood and tone of the story in an incredibly successful way.
  • Comedy Duos
    The writing in Life is ridiculously funny. Charlie Crews, with his half-Zen half-silliness, is comedic on his own. But the real hilarity starts when he gets paired up with Reese…or Ted…or Bobby…or Tidwell…or even Rachel Seybolt (Jessy Schram). Or any number of other combinations. The back-and-forths are stellar. The words are hysterical on their own. Each actor is great as an individual. But it all really comes alive in the delivery. Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi have the best comedic chemistry, hands down. But Lewis and Donal Logue are also a force to be reckoned with. Life doesn’t treat itself as a comedy, but with a little intellectual squinting, it could easily be taken as one.
  • Supporting/Guest Actors
    The central cast of the show is a small one. The only characters to appear in every one of the thirty-two episodes are Charlie Crews, Dani Reese, and Ted Earley. But they are surrounded by not only the other regular cast, but also an absolutely marvelous cohort of guest actors. These include Jennifer Siebel, who plays Crews’ ex-wife Jennifer, Gabrielle Union as Jane Seever, Crews’ temporary partner, the lovely Christina Hendricks as Olivia, Victor Rivers and William Atherton who are members of the conspiracy surrounding Charlie Crews, and my personal favorite, Garret Dillahunt as a Russian crime lord called Roman Nevikov. Their various performances are phenomenal, as are the clear connection they have with the lead cast, and that adds another great level of solidity to the show as a successful performance narrative.

Adam Arkin and Damian Lewis

WEAKNESSES

  • Soundtrack
    There are so many things about the production of this show that I like, but the music is unfortunately not one of them. The soundtrack of the show ranges from unnoticed to distracting. The moments where it makes itself known, it is usually part of a comedy gag (see: “Love Hurts” in the episode “Mirror Ball”). Mostly, though, the soundtrack is just ineffective and unimportant at best and irritating at worst.
  • Slow Development
    The writers and producers did identify and work to rectify some of the show’s rookie mistakes, I will give them that. The elements of Season One I found most questionable – the female captain and the love interest(?) lawyer – were both phased out successfully. However, the learning process was slow and ultimately the failure to find and fix the elements that didn’t work hurt the show overall, giving the parts of Life that were really enjoyable an unfortunate counterpoint. Maybe with a third season the show could have found a solid place for itself, but time stops for no show, especially on network television.
  • Lack of Definition
    Related to the slow development was the way that Life never managed to either carve out a niche of its own or fit into one that was pre-formed. It’s not exactly a cop show, it’s not exactly a comedy, it’s not exactly an unraveling conspiracy. It has all the elements of both, but it doesn’t fall into any one category. This can be a good thing, of course, but only if a show can find the right balance between the episodes. Even at the end of Season Two, Life never really managed to work out exactly what it was/wanted to be as a program.
  • “Interview” Footage
    This may just be a matter of opinion, but this was a technique the show used that I never really understood or liked. It was more or less effective as exposition, but it didn’t work within the narrative. Who was the interviewer? Why were they asking the questions? How did they get their preliminary information? How did they get access to the various characters? These are questions that were not only never answered, but never asked within the context of the show. The closest we get to a glimpse at the source of this material comes in the very last episode and it isn’t particularly helpful. Life is quirky in all aspects, but this is the most wtf element of all.
  • Realism
    It takes a real suspension of disbelief to accept this show as a representation of the real world. From Ted the white collar criminal in maximum security to over-the-top murders that are absolutely scientifically impossible, there are a lot of moments where Life completely abandons reality. Some of them are comedic enough that they can be forgiven, like when a shot gun gets blown out a la Looney Tunes in “Find Your Happy Place.” But others, like the man frozen solid from breathing liquid nitrogen and then shattered into a million pieces at the slightest touch in “The Business of Miracles,” completely destroy Life‘s credibility as a true-to-life show.

Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi

MY FAVORITE EPISODES

  • “The Fallen Woman” (Season 1 Episode 5)
    Most of my love for this episode comes from the fact that it includes the introduction of Garret Dillahunt’s character Roman Nevikov. It is also the first episode to really embrace the strangeness of the show and incorporate it into creating seriously oddball homicides for Crews and Reese to investigate.
  • “Farthingale” (Season 1 Episode 8)
    Speaking of oddball cases, this is definitely one of the strangest on the show. The murder itself (and the resulting half-corpse) both appealed strongly to my admittedly twisted sense of humor. And the idea of duality that permeated the whole episode is very strongly applicable to the entirety of the show, not just this piece of it.
  • “Serious Control Issues” (Season 1 Episode 9)
    The homicide case that turned into a kidnapping investigation is the most honestly heart-wrenching of the entire series for me. It is genuinely creepy and genuinely tragic. And the episode also incorporates measurable progress with the season- and show-wide plot arc.
  • “Dig a Hole”/”Fill it Up” (Season 1 Episodes 10 & 11)
    This double-header that wrapped up Season One was much more about the conspiracy storyline than about either of the included homicide cases. The darker side of Charlie Crews really manifested itself, and the full depth of the conspiracy came to light for the first time in a way that was both entertaining and gut-wrenching/mind-blowing.
  • “Find Your Happy Place” (Season 2 Episode 1)
    Just creepy, and weird, and fun to unravel – all the elements of a great crime show. Plus, the introduction of Captain Tidwell, who established himself early on as an ingenious addition to the show.
  • “Evil…and His Brother Ziggy” (Season 2 Episode 10)
    This episode didn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. It really speaks to my criticism about realism, for sure. But it is just so damned funny. It goes beyond the high standard of comedy for the body of the show and is intensely silly and cleverly hysterical.
  • “Trapdoor”/”Re-Entry” (Season 2 Episodes 12 & 13)
    The second double-header of the series, this one incorporates some spectacular elements like using the Ted character as more than a sideplot, showing the dark side of Charlie Crews, the intriguing diabolicalness of Roman Nevikov, and a couple utterly surprising shootings, one of which leads to an excellent cliff-hanger.
  • “Hit Me Baby” (Season 2 Episode 16)
    This episode is a great combination of silliness and seriousness and it balances the conspiracy plotline and the murder-of-the-week formula exceptionally well. Having Reese only on screen for a limited time (Sarah Shahi was pregnant at the time) was unfortunate, but this is one of the best episodes for Brent Sexton, who never got a huge amount of time to establish Bobby as the noteworthy character he is.
  • “One” (Season 2 Episode 21)
    It’s sad the show had to end, but at least it ended in such a marvelous way. The finale did help to wrap several story elements (even some that had barely been touched upon) in a natural and clever way. It was brilliantly shot, suspenseful, and astounding to watch. And by the very end the story was left both open- and close-ended enough to be satisfying but still a reminder of how much potential there was for sadly ne’er-to-come future seasons.

Season 2 Cast

The various cast members have now gone on to various and sundry other venues. Adam Arkin has joined cable phenomenon Sons of Anarchy and is, I hear, a terrifying white supremacist. American television may have lost Damian Lewis for good, which is a real tragedy for all of us. Sarah Shahi is continuing to work – she’s recently been cast as the lead in a USA drama called Facing Kate. The ultra-hysterical Donal Logue has turned his attentions to film.

Sad as it is to know this team of actors will not be reunited again, there is good news: both seasons of Life will be available on Hulu until Fall 2010, so you don’t even have to go far to enjoy the show, whether you’re re-watching (which is definitely worthwhile) or experiencing it for the first time. All the episodes are also available on imdb.com.

Life is one of my absolute top recommendations for Shows People Ought To See. It is clever, comedic, thought-provoking, emotional, gritty, and aesthetic – all the things that I think a truly great show ought to be. It is far from perfect and much much shorter than it ought to be/could have been. But it is genuine entertainment and appealing in a broad spectrum of ways, and I cannot express strongly enough how much I love this show or how intent I am on sharing it with as many people as possible.

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Comments

  • forensicfanatic  On November 10, 2009 at 6:34 PM

    Excellent Review of Life. I was devastated when this series was canceled; however, as you mentioned, it ended on a high note and answered some questions that needed to be answered. Damian Lewis is one of my all-time favorite actors (especially from Band of Brothers and Dreamcatcher) and it’s sad I won’t be seeing him any time soon on network television. Here’s to you, Life. Thanks for the amazing ride!

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