Continuing the theme of Damian Lewis playing Americans, we come to Life, a series which lasted for two seasons on network TV.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Also, like House, Crews has a partner off whom he can bounce his quirkiness: straight-faced and always serious hottie Dani Reese.
Now, Reese didn’t start the series as a hottie. She starts with hair tied back sloppily, sensible slacks, and her own interesting load of baggage and darkness. As a recovering addict who doesn’t really want to recover, in the first season she was often shown engaging in dangerous behaviors. And the actress who plays her, Sarah Shahi, has a compelling darkness too. Something in the eyes (again). I was quick to write her off as a sassy Latina archetype. But then one day she speaks fluent Farsi and I was intrigued. Aha, I said. THAT was where the darkness in her eyes was from. Sure, Latinas can and often do have dark eyes, but, the emotion behind them more often than not says: “Give it your best shot, guys, but know that I will cut the fool who thinks they can fool with me, cut deep, no questions asked.” Arab and Persian women, on the other hand, though they have similarly dark eyes going on, the emotion behind them is more like: “Give it your best shot, guys, and you are well within your rights to parade me in the square naked and stone me to death if you want, but I will still kick the ass of anyone who messes with me…eventually…even if it takes generations of well-veiled and quietly subversive behavior… I can wait, can you?” You spot the subtle difference? So, yeah, Sarah Shahi has that sadness behind the kick-ass darkness. The actress, I learned, has a Latin mother and a Persian father; the character she plays in Life has the reverse origins. Facts which are neither here nor there because the darkness gets sort of watered down in the subsequent season. Reese soon gets a cute haircut and perfectly fitted jeans and, viola, she’s the hottie arm candy partner to goofball Crews.
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.
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 (harkening to Brody’s adorable remark “it was called the you tube” after Dana showed him a cat video or something). 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.
We are also gifted with a surprise (to me) guest appearance by DL’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 DL back home to London (only to have him return about a year later to do Homeland, thank goodness)
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. So there’s sort of an Occam’s Razor thing happening with the crime in every episode: the theory which requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. (more on Occam’s razor when we visit Henry VIII)
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), DL 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, in his gregariousness and quirky sense of humor, seems to be the character most like DL in real life. Perhaps he was too close to the source material, because, in the final episodes of the series, you could tell DL, 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 DL. 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.
NEXT POST(s): Back to Back Brody: Hero or No?