Thursday, November 15, 2007

Life: Half a man, twice the life

Spoilers for "Life" coming up just as soon as I stare at my hat collection...

As I wrote a few weeks ago, "Life" has been growing on me, and last night's episode was just a strong hour of dramatic television. There are way, way too many cop shows right now, and it's almost impossible for a procedural story to stand out amidst that clutter, but the story of Mister Farthingale (or Misters Farthing and Gale, if you prefer) got my attention and kept it. It wasn't just background noise while Damian Lewis did his quirky Zen/fruit thing; it was intrinsically tied to his thing. While another cop show could have done this story, they wouldn't have done it in quite this way. If, in a hypothetical world where the strike wasn't taking place and "Life" wasn't almost certainly destined to be canceled once it ends, I were the showrunner hiring prospective writers, I'd hand them a copy of this episode and say, "This is what our show is."

I think the early episodes suffered from the writers' need to establish not just the premise, but the ways in which Charlie Crews is an unusual detective. So we got more fruit, more Zen koans, more of Reese and Lt. Calamity Jane butting heads with him over his unorthodox approach, etc. They laid all that stuff on with a trowel, and while it may have been necessary, the show has been a lot more interesting now that the writers and the other characters treat Charlie's quirks as a fact of life. They're not in awe of him, but they're also not trying to get him booted off the force every five seconds. (The scene where the lieutenant reminded Reese of their conversation from the pilot did a respectable job of reframing it as a legitimate concern and not just an eeeeevil conspiracy.) So when a weird case like this comes along that plays so well into the way Charlie's mind works, the bickering and eye-rolling comes at a minimum. And without those distractions, it was easier to focus on things like the lovely but disturbing image of the bisected Farthingale, or the constant parallel conversations with the two wives, or the other interesting things going on in this case.

I also think the arc stuff is getting better. In the main, I'm bored stiff with grand conspiracy stories, and the Wall of Blame (as Fienberg calls it) is getting awfully crowded. But this one feels like a genuine mystery with a genuine plan -- helped by the fact that, unlike a "Prison Break," the series can continue even after the conspiracy story wraps up -- so even though I don't expect to get a solution before these 13 episodes are over, the steps along the way have been intriguing. And making Brooke Langton's character a sympathetic DA finally gives her a useful role to play on the show instead of the woman who just pines after Charlie.

Speaking of Fienberg, he wrote a Save "Life" post over at his blog, in which he looks back to the Russsian mob episode as another template the show might use in a different Nielsen world:
I think "Life" has the potential to be that sort of stunt casting vehicle because what actor wouldn't want to go head-to-head with Lewis, whose character uses intellectual processes to solve his crime, rather than straight forward clue-accumulation detective work. If the show were to continue, I would recommend using the season's fifth episode, "The Fallen Woman," as a template for potential adversaries. Even if his Russian accent occasionally vanished, Garrett Dillahunt's performance as Roman, a mobbed up version of Satan, was so instantly and consistently chilling that I've already suggested to Sepinwall that Dillahunt should be brought back every other week as a recurring villain, the show's Big Bad, if you will.
What did everybody else think?

17 comments:

Alex R said...

First, let me start off by saying I disagree with your assessment about the overriding mystery, aka, the "wall of blame".

That has kept me hooked from the beginning. I hated the pilot and was annoyed by lewis' performance in the first 2 episodes, but the overriding mystery has kept me intrigued and I definitely want to know who the "big bad" was for bringing Lewis down.

At this point, the main culprit has to be Dani's father, Det. Jack Reese.

This show gets better every week and I found myself counting the minutes on my DVR box/clock for "Bionic Woman" to end so that "Life" would start.

Also, major kudos to the very entertaining performance by Adam Arkin as his best friend and former jail buddy.

Arkin's part adds a certain levity (and loyalty) and how ironic that a guy who's character has spent his life lying to people, is the best friend (besides Brooke Langton's DA) that Charlie could possibly have.

I also thought Arkin's scenes in the recent episodes with "Mad Men" hottie Christina Hendricks were priceless and adorable.

Unlike "Bionic" which NBC seems to want to stick with no matter how awful it is, this show deserves to be allowed to have traction and stick around.

Why anyone would choose a "CSI" photocopy series over something deeper and interesting like "Life", is extremely disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I too really enjoyed last night's Life and wish I had watched it from the beginning (I've only seen the last 3 episodes). I watch no other 'cop' shows (never could get into CSI, stopped watching the original Law & Order years ago, never watched any L&O offshoots), but this one just works for me. I can't wait to see the eps I've missed.

bill said...

For me, "Life" is a bit like "30 Rock" was last year. In that they started off intriguing but uneven, then quickly got better. My concern was that the rest of the show couldn't match Damian Lewis; I think this is changing. Other than "30 Rock," this is the show I most look forward to.

With Arkin, it's interesting how we're finding out he was a bad, bad person and not in prison for just a spot of white collar crime.

I also hope to see more of the Russian gangster. And to project how the conspiracy might go, I wouldn't be surprised to find out the reason his attorney worked so hard is because she was some how part of the conspiracy, or knew about it, and knew he was innocent.

Alex R said...

Bill,

Great point about his lawyer. If so, that means that the person Crews can trust the most, ironically, is the guy who was a career liar and in jail with him - the Arkin character.

He's the one guy Crews knows couldn't be involved.

Outside of that, the show does seem to suggest everyone was in somehow (except maybe Christina Hendricks and his boss).

Jennifer said...

Last night was a great episode.

Interesting timing that the lawyer got that job right before the murder. On the one hand, bad for Crews for losing her. On the other hand, she's clearly inclined to feed him inside information. Go Constance.

I loved the whole Farthing/gale thing. Take one boring guy, who gives himself two drastically different lives and wives, and throw in solving a mystery...very cool.

Anonymous said...

Good episode - at the beginning the plot reminded me of a Law & Order SVU episode called "Annihilated" from last year. There one guy (played by Dylan Walsh) also led a double life with two women, covered up by having an alleged government job - but his motivation was kind of different.

And then big love and the latest episode of Pushing Daisies, several women married to one men seems to be a new trend in writing. ;)

As for the big conspiracy: I don't have a theory yet, but I'm looking forward to any new clues.

J said...

Alan, this show's promos had intrigued me before the season. But you're right, Alan, about the preponderance of procedurals, and when the word came down that it wasn't immediately stunning, Alan, well I didn't bother. I did catch one episode, a horribly annoying thing with the guy who used to play "Larry" on Newhart. Oh, well.

But, Alan, when your Reaper post came through the RSS with a note that Life was particularly strong, I let the tube run on after Gossip Girl ended. And if the show was using a trowel earlier in the season, they've worked their way up to a bulldozer. Everything is geared to oversell. "Did he have a wife?" "No, he didn't have..." (wait for it) A (wink, nudge, yuk) wife." That's the sort of television writing and acting people called "television" when "television" was a word used to describe inferior product. Alan.

But my biggest pet peeve, Alan (which you might have guessed, Alan, by now) is when characters needlessly address each other by name. And in the conversation between Lewis and Langton (whom I'm glad to see is getting work, and who looks like she's had some work, am i right folks?) every single line, Alan, had the characters using each others' names. And even were it an isolated incident, a technique to show a distancing or a tension between characters, Alan, it came out like a jackhammer stuck in my ear. Connie-Charlie-Connie-Charlie-Aaaargh. It made me regret I'd opted out of that lobotomy! Every single sentence! And Alan, do you know, Alan, anyone who Alan talks Alan like that Alan Alan?

No more Life for me. Mikey no likey.

That said, the second half of the dead IRS guy mystery was watchable.

J said...

(Sorry. That was annoying.)

BigTed said...

I really like this show and its unique outlook on the police procedural. Which is a good thing, because the "deceased man turns out to have secretly had two or more wives and families" has been done many times before, both on cop shows (at least twice in the "Law & Order" franchise) and sitcoms (such as Carla's husband on "Cheers").

But while I understand the need for the show to have an overlying story arc, I really have very little interest in who conspired to frame Charlie and why. That's really the most mainstream aspect of the show, and the dullest, too.

Marty McKee said...

What is the "need" for the show to have an overlying story arc? Does any show "need" one?

Mark said...

Excellent musical choices this ep. Aimee Mann at the beginning, Radiohead at the end.

BigTed said...

Marty, right or wrong, a lot of producers seem to think that having a mystery or other long-term plot line that lasts for several episodes or an entire season helps keeps audiences tuning in over time. Even shows that usually just do one-off episodes (such as "CSI" and "Bones") have been doing continuing storylines lately.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that struck me was why did no one suspect that Farthingale was actually the Free State bomber instead of his latest victim? And did we find out how the bomber found out about Farthinggale?

I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed this show. I don't find the MotWs to be that thrilling (though I did like this one) nor does the Big Bad End Mystery grab me in the way that, say, s.1 Veronica Mars' did.

Still, it's the little moments between Crews and Reese that keep me coming back. I think the two have a great platonic chemistry and work really well together.

Marty McKee said...

Bigted, for fifty years dating back to the beginning of television, virtually no dramatic series had "story arcs" unless they were soap operas. And many of those series are among the greatest TV series of all time. Dare I say, many of them are even better than today's crop of TV drama. It's difficult to imagine any producer claiming that DRAGNET, GUNSMOKE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., LOU GRANT, THE UNTOUCHABLES, STAR TREK (just to pull a few out of my ear) "needed" a story arc to be successful.

An example of a show that did have a story arc--THE FUGITIVE--went about it the right way, which is that it didn't shoehorn the arc into every episode. Lt. Gerard only popped up every fourth episode or so, enough to remind the viewer of the hero's predicament, but not so much that the arc lost its way.

There's nothing wrong with an overlying story arc if the series' format calls for it, but I think it's silly to think that every show has to have one.

J said...

I believe bigted just meant it was en vogue, not the historical norm. Series with ongoing story arcs tend to be watercooler fodder, and are therefore less timeshiftable. In theory, or something.

Inigo said...

What I most like about the MotWs on Life is how they aren't predictable. I don't think a single one has gone the direction that countless years of watching TV have trained me to think they'll go.

Life crept up on me, too, although I recognised that fact after the third episode (ironically one of the weakest MotWs to date, I think). Both the conspircy and the characters have me hooked. For me, it has a lot in common with the things I loved in Veronica Mars.

Anonymous said...

Because no one has said it yet, Charlie's Union Representative did NOT f*ck that horse!

Another Deadwood denizon makes an appearance. Keep 'em coming!