Trying to be Zen about Life's fate; An uncertain future awaits this fine procedural
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 March 2009)

Charlie Crews manages to be both a cop and an ex-con, which makes him unlike any previous hero in the history of TV police procedurals. Crews is the core of Life, a two-year-old NBC series with a shaky future. His peculiar history explains why he's spent hard time in the very institution to which he struggles to send some of the most despicable law-breakers in Los Angeles.

Earlier in his career he was unjustly convicted of a triple homicide and served 12 years in prison, much of it in isolation for his own protection. Finally proven innocent, he won US$50-million in compensation from the state of California but decided that, despite his wealth, he wanted to keep on detecting. He hopes to learn who framed him. While on the job, he often turns his mind to that question.

Alas, this long-running plot line may never be entirely resolved. At the moment it appears that Life will soon end its own life with the episode that will air on Wednesday, April 8. Ratings having been respectable but not robust, it seems likely NBC will let it die.

Meanwhile, waiting for the end, we Life fans enjoy watching Crews try to figure out why and how he was set up. It must have been a sizable conspiracy, so he spends much of his spare time studying an alcove in his house where he posts photos of everyone who might be guilty and draws charts that will, he hopes, crack the case.

But he's not brooding about revenge. He believes, "Revenge is a poison meant for others that we swallow ourselves." It turns out that in prison he studied Zen Buddhism and he now displays a level of tranquillity that makes him a living testimonial to the benefits of meditation. When he has hard thinking to do, you'll see him chomping happily on an apple, not slipping out to the bar. He avoids anger, on principle: "Anger ruins joy, steals the goodness of my mind ... Overcoming anger brings peace of mind." He also says, "Maybe life is a dream and we wake up when we die?"

Those aren't precisely the kind of koans likely to stimulate fresh prayers at the temples in Kyoto, but they're an improvement on the one-liners the detectives of Law & Order have been delivering since way back in the 20th century. For his part, Damian Lewis, who plays Crews, claims that he prepares himself by listening to the tapes of Alan Watts, who wrote The Way of Zen and became one of that sect's most famous popularizers in the 1960s.

All this goes down well with those who watch Crews in action. On a Life fan site I came across a comment from an adoring viewer, written with authentic folkloric spelling: "This show rocks. I've never seen anything on TV with this sheer volume of philosophical depth as it relates to today."

When you have a good guy elaborately framed by bad guys you're wandering into the thematic territory of film noir, but Life shows none of the other stylistic signs that identify noir. No lurking in shadows, no furtive meetings in down-market diners, no chases across grimy rooftops. Life takes place in a Los Angeles that Dashiell Hammett would find unrecognizable, a city where the sun never fails to shine. The police, searching for a heavy-duty crime boss, find him sharing a Malibu beach house with a dozen bikini-clad women.

Crews's partner, Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), is a recovering alcoholic whose history has taught her cynicism. Her can't-fool-me skepticism nicely offsets his esoteric dialogue. She demands that everything be explained, which makes life a little easier for viewers. When she's seconded to the FBI, Crews acquires a temporary partner who has either a great future or a rich fantasy life. A law graduate, she's become a detective so that she can follow her 15-year life plan: rise to police chief, then become mayor of L. A. Crews has an engaging roommate he met in prison, a wizard investor who was convicted of embezzlement, played by Adam Arkin.

Damian Lewis, who looks every inch a tough American, turns out to be part of the extensive British invasion of American TV. At school Lewis played the villainous Wackford Squeers in Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and in the Royal Shakespeare Company he was Laertes to Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet. On TV he became Soames in the remake of The Forsyte Saga. In 2001 Steven Spielberg escorted him into American TV by casting him in Band of Brothers, HBO's 10-part series about the American army fighting its way east from Normandy in 1944-45.

Once, British actors lost good American parts by their apparently inescapable accents. Now they're so adaptable that sometimes they're more American than the Americans. On the last three dozen Law & Order episodes the tough, hard-edged, win-at-all costs Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter, a typical New Yorker, has been played by Linus Roache; he was born in Manchester and started his acting career at age 11 with a part on Coronation Street. On The Wire, that great HBO series, Dominic West plays a cynical-but-sentimental Irish-American cop, Detective Jimmy McNulty of the Baltimore police force. West was born in Yorkshire to an Irish Catholic family. Also on The Wire, Idris Akuna Elba, born in the Hackney district of London, gives a terrific performance as Stringer Bell, an ambitious African-American drug lord who tries to improve his performance in the crime industry by studying business theory. (Recently Elba won a part in the U. S. version of The Office.)

The champion among these chameleons is of course Hugh Laurie, who was so English that he won a million British hearts as Bertie Wooster in a famous Wodehouse series 15 years ago. The last few years have made him one of the princes of American TV as Dr. Gregory House, the cranky genius diagnostician in House.

Remarkably, Damian Lewis, Dominic West and Hugh Laurie are all products of the same legend-encrusted English institution, Eton. Has Eton been running a clandestine course designed to make English boys into mock Americans? The Duke of Wellington, so the story goes, claimed the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Has Eton, recognizing the global influence of television, transferred its expectations to a different theatre of operations?

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