Monday, April 13, 2009


Monday, April 13, 2009

With Thursday night came the second season finale of NBC's quirky crime drama "Life". I hope and pray alongside many others that this episode will not end up being the show's series finale as well. Life is a sensational (not to mention Zensational) TV show, and it would be a crying shame if it fell through the cracks while other run-of-the-mill crime series (read: anything with a 'CSI' prefix) went on strong. Yahoo's TV blog puts Life at #2 of its top-ten 'Shows That Are Really, Really Awesome But Which Will Almost Certainly NOT Pick Up Another Season Because...Because...Well, because, let's face it, The Majority of the American TV-Viewing Public Is Just Plain Stupid. It's STUPID. Seriously.' List (that was something of a paraphrase, if you hadn't guessed). While I haven't yet watched their #1 pick (i.e. "Chuck"), and I cannot fathom why something as tame and mundane as a reality show ("Celebrity Apprentice", to be precise!) makes their cut, it is overall a great list with good assessments of the shows. Besides Life, I'm rooting for "Dollhouse", "Fringe", and "Better Off Ted", by the by.

But what about Life makes it worth saving?
I mean, is it not just the latest version of the now-tread 'crime-with-a-twist' genre? Is it not just another "Monk" or "Psych"? The answer, as is probably obvious by now, is an EMPHATIC "NO."

(Continue for the full review after the jump.)

So, the reason? I cite the same ones as the above-linked critic: star Damien Lewis and the intriguing, engaging character he plays -- Det. Charlie Crews.
Don't get me wrong about the crime-with-a-twist thing. While I enjoy any ol' Law & Order as much as the next guy (which I hope means "a lot, for the most part"), I'm much more in favor of the above-scorned "characters wanted" approach. The difference is that whereas the quirks of many other 'characters-wanted'-type detectives serve merely as props or gimmicks, as bits of comedic relief and distraction from the dark crimes they are solving, the Zen-y so-called "quirks" of Detective Charlie Crews are really the representation of the show's central-most tension -- Charlie's personal crisis; his internal struggle; his soul's teetering between the abstract and the concrete.

Of course, I understand that the show's basic premise is more than a little bit gimmecky and far-fetched. If you're not familiar with it, here's a summary of what wikipedia has to say:

Life centers around Detective Charlie Crews, who at the start of the first season (set in 2007) is released from Pelican Bay State Prison after serving twelve years of a life sentence. In 1995 he was wrongfully convicted of the triple murder of his business partner and the partner's family. Thanks to the efforts of his lawyer Constance Griffiths, DNA evidence exonerates him of the murders. Having lost his job, his wife, his friends, nearly all contact with the outside world and even his grip on reality for a time while in jail, he emerges enlightened by the philosophy of Zen, a fixation with fresh fruit and an obsession with solving the murder that nearly cost him his life and exposing the conspiracy that framed him for it. After successfully suing the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD, he is reinstated to the police department and receives an undisclosed but substantial monetary settlement.

But if you accept the basic premise and watch the show, then Charlie Crews, his life, and the people that surround it -- all of it will grow and grow and GROW on you. Again, what makes the show so compelling is Charlie himself, and what makes Charlie so compelling are his seeming contradictions (and actual contradictions). In short, he is something of a conundrum.

Despite the fact that his settlement has made him fabulously wealthy, Crews continues to work on the force, trying to bring the conspirators who framed him to justice. However, this vengeful pursuit of justice sometimes borders on revenge, which flies in the face of his apparently Buddhist philosophies. Crews is constantly listening to the advice given by a series of Zen self-fulfillment audio tapes, but at the end of Season 1, when he has the chance to kill the real murderer, he tosses one out of his car window. Yet when he digs a grave in which to bury the true killer, he fills it back up again, as a Zen exercise, and goes on to turn in the man rather than murder him secretly. Afterwards, he goes back to the country road and picks up the damaged audio tape from the dust.

Though his unusual outlook on life often aids him on his cases, Charlie CANNOT become a true Buddhist and remain a good cop; nor can he perfectly do what a police officer ought without abandoning some of his Buddhist principles. The question surrounding his character then is whether the mystical and transcendent ideals of Zen will rule the day, or whether the grounded, common-sense sentiments and notions he holds as a human being and a cop will overcome the dangers of his abstract philosophies. In short, shall he transcend the dirty, nitty-gritty details of LIFE, become distanced and disassociated from it, or shall he engage LIFE, embrace it, and deal with the pains and harsh truths and unpleasantness of it all?
Perhaps this exchange from the penultimate episode of Season 2 puts it best, when Charlie discovers his partner has been kidnapped by a criminal mastermind who was supposed to be behind bars (Here be SPOILERS!):

TED EARLEY: Charlie, what are you thinking?
CHARLIE CREWS: I'm thinking about what I want, and what I need.
TED EARLEY: What do you want?
CHARLIE CREWS: I *want* a peaceful soul...
TED EARLEY: And what do you need?
CHARLIE CREWS: I *need* a bigger gun.

Or perhaps this exchange, from the season finale, when Charlie prepares to hunt down the men who have taken his partner:

BOBBY STARK: Is this a private club, or can anyone join?
CHARLIE CREWS: That depends on if you got me what I asked for.
[Bobby opens the car trunk]
BOBBY STARK: It's not Zen, Charlie.
CHARLIE CREWS: It'll just have to do until Zen comes along.
[CUT to trunk interior, where an assault rifle is revealed. Crews picks the gun up, loading a clip.]

No, I know -- the climactic scene of the season finale, when Charlie's in the hands of Roman, his arch-nemesis:

CHARLIE CREWS: Do you wanna know how I survived twelve years of prison?
ROMAN NEVIKOV: Your 'Zen'? [laughs]
[Charlie whips his hand back, smashing Roman's windpipe. Roman slowly chokes to death...]
CHARLIE CREWS: Like *that*.
(Here endeth the SPOILERS...)

Hopefully by now you have a rough feeling of what I'm trying to say about Det. Charlie Crews' internal struggle. While he longs for harmony and union, there is none to be had with monsters like Roman, and so Charlie picks and chooses his Buddha-sayings, getting a "bigger gun" instead of "a peaceful soul", and doing what he's got to do "until Zen comes along."

So, is Season 2 better than Season 1? Yep. The reasons? Donal Logue as Captain Kevin Tidwell and Gabriel Union as Detective Jane Seever. Plus, of course, the plot thickens, the conspiracies widen and change, the bizarre mixture of death, hilarity, and surrealism doesn't miss a beat. And Detective Charlie Crews gets to kill the bad guys. That's not very Zen, Charlie!
So, so, so, if LIFE gets canceled, a little piece of my life will shrivel up and die. I mean, we'll keep watching that d-bag in Miami take on/off his sunglasses, but not Charlie with his personal pineapple? Anyway, y'all say a prayer for Life, Dollhouse, Fringe, and Better off Ted.

Ciao, folks. If you read this far, you are truly blessed.


Francis Shivone said...

CC -- I don't think I have mentioned anywhere how much I like this show. I found it quite by accident on Hulu and was hooked after the first episode. This last episode should go down in cop show history as an all time great.

I agree about the very cool dialogue, as well.

I hadn't even considered that it might not get another year. That would be a bummer.

Anyway, good comments on a great show.


Kenny said...

I like that in each final episode Charlie has abandoned his Zen tape, then picked it back up. Each time his understanding is superficial in the beginning, and then after the dramatic event he goes through, he goes back to the tape and has a real, but very different, understanding of it. It's nicely done.

Lizzie said...

I think the addition of Tidwell really made the show this year. I think zen was easier for Charlie in prison because it was a dream and not something he could really practice. Now that he's out he keeps having to choose and it makes things really difficult and interesting.

I don't think decent shows have a chance on network anymore. They have to be on cable and have to be able to survive with a niche audience. Life is too smart for network tv.

Tyler Awesome Coolage said...

Yeah, I'm holding out a infinitessimal bit of hope for network television coming to its senses and realizing it is trashing great shows. Oh mighty TV, at least let Life and Dollhouse and Fringe stay!

I mean, c'mon! The season finale of Life set up an amazing plot to pursue in another season -- Charlie has to deal with being the Corrupt Cop Chosen One. I always found it fascinating how Mickey Rayborne looked a LOT like an older Charlie Crews (to me at least). It seems that was no coincidence; I think it was a very good choice by the casting director.

Tyler Awesome Coolage said...

errr...Mickey Rayborn, no "e", I mean.

Anonymous said...

Tyler, I just realized that you should have titled this blog entry 'Apologia pro Vita.' HAHA! Oh, that was so bad. Sorry.

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