Revisiting Life with Charlie Crews

When our new blogger Holliedazzle had the idea to do a summer re-watch of Life, we were intrigued. “We’ve never had the opportunity to dig into this show with a lot of detail, and I think the readers would really enjoy to watch along with us this summer and talk about the episodes,” she said. “And with it being on Netflix, that helps a lot with people’s access to the show,” she added. We were sold. Both Damianista and I had a binge watch at different times in our shared tour of all things Damian. Bookworm had a far deeper relationship with the show…it took her by the hand all the way to fanfic land! The two season series straddled both ends of the 2007-08 television writer’s strike, and we see tweets roll by nearly everyday bemoaning the fact that it was a great show with a lot of promise which somehow never got the chance. So, yes, let’s give Life a revisit! In the following weeks, we’ll be talking about Life, S1 and S2, every Tuesday. To inaugurate our series on the series, here’s a bit of a summary review.

I want to be the unwobbling pivot at the center of an ever-revolving universe. I want to be still  – Charlie Crews

source: NBC
source: NBC

Like Nicholas Brody, Charlie Crews in Life is unfairly imprisoned and, because he’s a cop, is brutalized while in prison. The series begins just as he’s released and tries to integrate back into a life he hasn’t known for 12 years. He finds that everyone he loved believed he was guilty and is lost to him: his father kept his mother from visiting until she died and his wife got remarried. While in isolation for his own protection in prison, Crews had started to question his own innocence and there are a few moments, as the series progresses, when the audience is led to question his innocence too. Also like Brody, Crews finds peace and escape from the injustices around him in a book. For Brody, it was the Quran, for Crews, it is A Path to Zen.

source: NBC

A condition of his release from prison is a large cash settlement, which Crews proceeds to spend on a big house, a fast car, a coterie of female company, and whatever else strikes his fancy. He’s a man that doesn’t have a problem getting laid. And this aspect of his character harkens back to another one he’s played, Paul Reynolds, the well-heeled playboy inventor dilettante in Friends and Crocodiles. In that film, and in Life, we get a momentary glimpse of Damian Lewis’ character in a polyamorous situation, an image that any healthy imagination can surely run miles with.

Menage a Damian Lewis: Friends and Crocodiles, then Life. source: BBC One, NBC
badge bunnies, charlie crews
source: NBC

But, I digress.

So, yeah, Charlie Crews is rich and he’s Zen, but instead of basking in his new found state of enlightenment and retreating to a peaceful life of ease, Crews wants to identify and (maybe) exact revenge on the people who framed him for murder and took away 12 years of his life. The character’s defining conflict is trying to remain blissfully detached from worldly concerns while still trying to figure out who is to blame for the pain he’s gone through.

source: NBC

Charlie Crews gives Damian Lewis the opportunity to play a very Hugh-Laurie-as-House character: an irreverent goofball savant with a darkness that lurks behind closed doors. In a large closet in his huge empty house, Crews posts up pictures of all the figures he suspects of playing a role in framing him. He stands in this room, bare but for one wall of pictures and names, and he draws and redraws connections between them. How does he get information on these people? Contrary to what anyone would expect of a newly minted gazilliionaire, Crews goes back to work as a Los Angeles detective, where he has access to all the information any revenge-seeker could desire.

charlie crews

Also, like House, Crews has a partner off whom he can bounce his quirkiness: straight-faced and always serious hottie Dani Reese.

Dani Reese, S1 and S2. source: NBC

Short of romps with the occasional Badge Bunnies, Crews seems to develop no deep connection to any of the women characters. You half expect something to happen with him and Reese, but, the chemistry is just not there. Not sure if it was written that way or if that magical thing that happens between two actors just never happened for Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi.

The show does have its moments of sexual tension, though, in the chemistry between Crews and the lawyer who won his release and settlement. They looked like they could have really gone somewhere with that, despite (or maybe because of) the lawyer being happily married to someone else. But she leaves the show and Charlie’s life early, on the weak premise of being married and therefore unavailable. Girlfriend, please.

Charlie and Constance. source: NBC

A highlight of the series and the main reason the show should have lasted more than two seasons were Crews’ moments of Zen. Damian Lewis played them beautifully and believably. His joy over fruit and orange orchards and solar panels was palpable, as was his glee colored by sweet confusion over the advances in technology since he’d been incarcerated.

charlie crews, dani reese

Network TV shows have lasted much longer on much weaker premises than a Zen Los Angeles police detective. And how appropriate that the guy who starred in The Tao of Steve (Donal Logue) would be Crews’ boss as police chief. As TV formulas go, it was a good one. But who knows what allows some mediocre TV to stick around way past its expiration date while good TV is lost way before its time.

Anyway, despite the elevated state of detachment acquired by being Zen, Crews does manage to develop a couple of personal relationships along the way. Most notable is Crews’ roommate, confidante from jail, and now money manager, played by Adam Arkin. His antics are always fun to watch (I’ll never forget the ill-tempered Adam he portrayed on Northern Exposure) and were a highlight of every episode. Crews also develops a fatherly bond with the daughter of the family he was accused of killing. This, like the relationship with his lawyer, was another one that could have gotten deeper and more meaningful but never did.

charlie crews, adam arkin, ted earley
source: NBC

We are also gifted with a surprise (to me) guest appearance by Damian’s wife in real life, Helen McCrory. Towards the end of Season 2, she comes on board to play a person in charge of security for the enemy. Lots of fun seeing the gorgeous couple on screen together! And since she appears in the very final seven episodes, the “meta” of her appearance seems to be to usher Damian back home to London (only to have him return about a year later to do Homeland, thank goodness)

source: NBC

Though the identity of the people who framed Crews is the plot thread running through the entire two years of the series, Crews doesn’t exactly have a monolithic lust for revenge. It was more like a casual hobby for him and the one thing he remained attached to despite knowing better than to be attached. So, even though you want to see him solve the crime of who framed him and to get justice , you also have to work at caring about it, principally because all the suspects up on his wall are sort of weakly drawn one-dimensional characters. That said, the very fact that Zen Charlie still could not let go, even when the suspects themselves seem sort of anemic, spoke to the difficulty one has to detach completely from worldly concerns. If the suspects had been all sinister bad-asses, the dilemma within Charlie would have been less interesting I suppose.


The murder stories at the heart of every episode are the usual gruesome and sensationalized things you see on most crime drama. And the trope of the show seems to be that the perpetrator is usually the very first one Crews and Reese encounter on the scene of the crime.

Ultimately, the biggest problem of the series was that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be light or dark. Not to imply that you necessarily have to choose between the two. Many shows have done splendidly in that lovely area between the two: for example, House. But Reese’s unexplained and unjustified-by-script transformation to babe as well as Crews’ inability to disguise the pain he felt every time he went out in that relentless Los Angeles sunshine wore a bit thin around the time the show knew it was on the chopping block. Sure, Crews relished being outside after being in jail for so long and he often marveled up at the smog-filtered persistent light in the Los Angeles sky. But that same light appeared to be both Crews’ discomfort and Damian Lewis’. On BBC’s Five Minutes with Damian Lewis (in addition to a terribly sexy aside about his tight adductor muscle), Damian described living in LA as:  “sunny, at times charmless, and at times depressing from the overwhelming amount of sunshine that you get…for a red head.”

charlie crews

Damian-Lewis-in-Life-Fill-It-Up-1-11-damian-lewis-25272689-1280-720Charlie Crews, in his gregariousness and quirky sense of humor, seems to be the character most like Damian in real life. Perhaps he was too close to the source material, because, in the final episodes of the series, you could tell Damian, like Crews, was a bit of an odd man out in LA. Los Angeles isn’t a good long term fit for any thinking person, let alone a fair-skinned half-Welsh well-schooled, mired in culture Londoner. Los Angeles is a place of illusion most successfully peopled by illusionists and the people who believe the illusion. Of course, all good acting is illusion, but you can’t really say that the craft Damian Lewis practices is a lie. I mean to say, his skill isn’t one of trying to pull the wool over our eyes. His acting method is more about getting at the truth of the situation as written, understanding it historically and technically, and showing it to us so as to fully immerse us in that character’s experience. Yeah, you could say that’s the method every actor attempts, but, few do it as well as Damian. So, alas, Crews, the Zen master couldn’t disguise his discomfort in Los Angeles, and neither could Damian Lewis.

In the series finale, Crews stands on the edge of a grove of orange trees, turns his face up to the sun and smiles in seeming gratitude to Los Angeles, the land of plentiful fresh fruit always in season, before bidding it a fond and respectful adieu.

Here’s a fun blooper reel from Life. Is that a shout out to Steve McQueen at the end? Do tell!

14 thoughts on “Revisiting Life with Charlie Crews”

  1. Thank you for your wonderful report on the Life series!
    It is in this magnificent series I saw Damian Lewis for the first time, and I thought, “My God what a nice man, and what a great actor”
    I expected the forward Monday and I was, disappointed, angry, when I knew that there would be no third season!
    Now, after the success of Damian in Homeland, the channel must regret having done such a stupidity Monique

  2. Can’t wait to get my assigned episodes and re-watch this series! “Ultimately, the biggest problem of the series was that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be light or dark.” And that is why I actually loved this show: it was both light and dark. It always kept you thinking. Also, being from NY, I loved how they let LA be a major supporting actor in the show.

    1. Ditto. My favorite parts about this series (aside from Damian Lewis) are the straddle between light and dark, that one persisting thread of revenge hidden behind Crew’s zen (playboy) facade and his childlike demeanor in discovering a new toy after a 12 year absence from what we take for granted.

      1. The phone vibrating across the table, internet for dummies and him drawing a smiley face and sticking it up on his computer screen are a few of the favourite moments I have. As Holly pointed out in a previous posts of hers, Charlie always carried an undercurrent of threat and menace with him.

    2. Me too! My favorite TV formula is dark with light bits of hilarity peppered throughout. It’s the only sustainable formula long term, IMO. (one can only go so far with dark on dark) My saying that the mix of light and dark was a “problem” just meant that network television often likes to present things as black and white. Keeping us thinking is not high on their list of priorities sometimes. 😀

      And another “me too” on LA being a character in the show. Back channel, I already waxed poetic about the LA noir themes that I anticipate may be the focus of my posts on the subject. Here’s me quoting myself 🙂 :

      “I imagine I may focus on the LA-ness of the series. The glaring sun, the sordid night life, the hidden doings in the bungalows in the Santa Monica hills and the creepy retro stretches of concrete in the Valley. The crimes they saw were very “LA” too. And some of the obsession the camera had with corpses up close reminded me a lot of Six Feet Under, another great LA-centric series. Mulholland Drive, Black Dahlia….all those great LA noir stories. Gah, I’m writing my post right here in the midst of a conversation…again.”

  3. This is a great idea to beat the summer doldrums. The series has become a cult classic, more popular now than when it aired. I hope everyone gets to share their favorite moments. The funniest scene I remember was when Crews and Reese had to share a motel room. The expressions on Damian’s face were priceless.

  4. Good introduction to get us off, Zarqa. Whets the appetite. It is a shame Life was so ill thought off in the TV world. What you say about illusion is so spot on given that Life nearly cost Damian the chance of playing Brody. Thank goodness for Keane, but clearly whoever at Showtime decided Damian’s appearance on Life did not merit him getting the part of Brody hadn’t actually paid attention to his performances as Charlie.

    As you know, I love Life, am glad we are revisiting it and with more of us involved in reviewing, it will give even greater perspective.

    Also thank you to Holly for the brilliant idea.

    Final words to Charlie Crews…tilts head “Did anyone ever love you that much?”

  5. Hooray! I look forward to a summer of Tuesdays and FanFun’s posts about Life. Our “Zen-ish” hero’s smarts and sweetness were my first introduction to Damian Lewis. I hope someone can find the one-minute video description about Charlie Crews recorded by Damian in an American accent. He was sitting at a desk, shirt and tie, and simply explaining his take on the character. Newcomers would enjoy it, but I can’t find it anymore. I think it was recorded at the beginning of the series.
    You guys are great and I enjoy being a regular follower.
    Warmly, Lynda

    1. Thanks Lynda! That video sounds familiar. I’ll go on a hunt to try to find it again. 😀

      1. I know it’s a bonus video if you purchase the series on Amazon Prime. That’s where I saw it.

  6. Wonderful post! And a delicious start to a delicious summer with Charlie! Big thanks go to Holliedazzle for the idea and big thanks go to the team for making the idea come to life! I have always thought Life has been a bit under-appreciated: Damian once said it was more of a cable show on a network which may be true. The audience for a cable show and a network show can be quite different. Having said that the under-appreciation also applies to me that I have not spent much time on Life. It was in my stash for a long time since I wanted to have something NEW for times that we do not have Damian regularly on TV and I binge-watched the whole thing over a few weeks. I have never thought about Charlie Crews as deeply as I have about Brody or Axe or Soames. And I am fascinated by both this post and Holliedazzle’s post in which she compares Brody, Axe and Charlie — both of you talk about the depth of Charlie as a character! I just can’t wait for this summer to give me an amazing opportunity to dive deep into the world of Charlie Crews. And I sincerely hope that fans will share their favorite Charlie moments, their favorite episodes or scenes with us. And since five of us will do this together, i just cannot wait to see how each of us will take a different stab at the show. This will be a FUN summer!

  7. I am so excited to see what everyone brings to the show! Even on the “not assigned to me” episodes, I am watching and taking notes, so we can have DEEP discussions in the comments! So much fun content, I really look forward to reading and watching with you all 🙂

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