“What we learned as children, that one plus one equals two, we know to be false. One plus one equals one. We even have a word for when you, plus another, equals one.”
When I first saw the trailer for Life a few years ago on cable television, I was immediately intrigued despite the seemingly generic title that has led a movement of similarly non-specific titles on American TV. A cop who spent 12 years in jail for a murder he did not commit? Woah, a strong premise and immediate character study right there. And then there’s Damian Lewis, who is firmly in the league of British actors with flawless American accents. I always noted this drama on my to-watch list but never really got around to it until recently on Netflix, and man, I could not be more glad. A little offbeat but infinitely endearing, Life has definitely joined the ranks of some of my favourite shows with excellent characterisations and high production value.
Why should I watch this show that purports to represent all of life in its lame title, you ask?
#1: The title is not lame at all / The character Charlie Crews
Main character Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) was convicted of killing his business partner and friend’s family in a triple murder. Life was what he got, and life was what he got back, referring to a life imprisonment sentence in the former and his freedom in the latter. That’s a great tagline because it illustrates the tension inherent in Crews – the convict vs. the detective. Within this one character lies a paradoxical identity that doesn’t usually exist and is extremely difficult for the character to negotiate but super awesome for viewers to witness. When is Charlie behaving and thinking like an inmate and when is he a cop?
The truth is, he is both, and that makes his character so much more interesting, elevating him from the cookie cutter cop characters we’ve been getting so often that has a common death/unresolved crime backstory that drove them to become detectives. Charlie Crews was just a regular cop, working to get his 20 and pension. Surprisingly, it was only after 12 years in jail did he truly become a cop in all the ways the word can mean. It wasn’t just that his legal settlement gave him a Detective status, but the fact that becoming a criminal made him all the more moral and all the more empathetic. What Charlie Crews as a character demonstrates is that there isn’t such a vast distance between the white knight and the black king after all – that perhaps criminals and officers on both sides of the law are really quite the same.
#2: The partnership between Dani Reese & Charlie Crews
Man. Man. The banding of misfit individuals into a solid partnership/relationship/family is like one of my absolute favourite tv tropes ever, but very few shows do it as well as Life does in a way that is both subtle and substantial. Dani is an amazing character in her own right, with her own struggles/demons and a personality as big as Crews’, and Sarah Shahi brings an excellent quality of believability to her acting that I immediately root for Dani. At first skeptical of this partner she is stuck with after her troubles, Dani grows to trust and respect Crews, even when she never truly tells him that. Their level of admiration for each other is never belaboured or even openly discussed, but is treated as something that just is. And I love it!
One aspect of their partnership I love is how much they value their detective work, both as an activity they do together and as something that helps people. Even when they face challenges in their personal life, they never neglect their duties as a cop, and that seems to be a kind of determination they owe each other as partners. I especially love how much Dani grew to trust Charlie’s perspective in cases, always asking him what he sees and even insisting Captain Tidwell ask Charlie “what do you see?” in her absence.
But the most important thing is how much they love each other, and the fact that this love is not (or need not be) romantic at all. Many are of the opinion that placing a male and female lead together on screen will only result in them ending up together, because they will unwittingly share sexual chemistry and build a great relationship that is also great TV. In most shows, I’m fine with that model, and I even really love it! But Life is a rare example of how main male and female leads can be written in a way that doesn’t make their romance an inevitability. Dani and Charlie have their own romantic lives that are separate from their partnership, and that doesn’t lessen their partnership in any way or feel awkward like when writers bring in stock characters to keep their leads apart. And even if Dani and Charlie did not have separate romances, their growing closeness was not construed romantically, but it was very clear they loved and respected each other as individuals.
In the pilot, they come across a dog who took a bullet for his master and bit off the killer’s finger. Crews asks Dani, “Anyone ever love you that much?”
And yes. Yes. By the end of the series (comprising only two short-lived seasons), Charlie does love her that much, loves her enough to (spoiler alert!) replace her as a hostage.
Also, they have the best banter that is delivered so well by the actors. It’s not sexual tension per se; just really hilarious back-and-forth that keeps them on their toes and also reflects how much they really like each other.
#3: The minor characters
The main characters are awesome and complex and interesting, but the minor characters are the ones who surprise me the most. This is something a show can do without and for which I can easily forgive it. After all, minor characters that do not last more than an episode can exist just for the resolution of a case, but they are so fleshed out and lifelike that it all seems so real.
A bullied janitor is the perfect suspect for the murder of a professor and I wouldn’t have looked further, but the janitor also has a family and a child with illness that moves the story forward in an integral way. A homeless guy living off the trash of rich people was endearing enough to be taken in by Charlie as a delusional wannabe cowboy type, but he was also a manipulative liar. A liar, but still endearing! A female impersonator of rock-and-roll legend can be obsessive but turned out to be surprisingly sweet and childlike.
The minor characters which do exist for seasonal arcs like Ted Earley, Jennifer (Charlie’s ex-wife), Rachel Seyboldt and Captain Tidwell are also amazing. Tidwell in particular was truly unexpected – I didn’t like him right from the beginning and, granted, I don’t love him by the end, but he really grew on me. He was surprisingly loyal and kind, despite being kinda clueless and sometimes afraid. The show doesn’t need extraordinary episodes that explores character backstory for the characters to come to life; it’s always about the little things, the dialogue in between that breathes life into these fictional characters.
#4: Excellent cases
Life has really realistic weekly cases that are both fascinating and representative of reality. Most cases involve a lot of foundational detective work, including canvassing, asking neighbours and suspects multiple times, checking alibis, etc. that have nothing to do with mystical CSI stuff. Most of the killers are people close to the victims, as it is in real life.
The episodes also deal with issues in an excellent way, highlighting important things without over-dramatising them. In 1×06 (which is also an amazing Reese episode), we encounter the portrayal of a rapist and rape survivor that is very close to real life, in which the rapist rapes to gain power and dominance, not necessarily a sexual act, and the fact that the victim is the one who suffers after the crime. As Charlie says to the victim in the show, “It seems a lot like Larson committed the crime but you went to prison.” I think this statement encapsulates rape culture very much. Other issues the show touches upon include homophobia, racial hate crimes, grief, etc.
(Screencap by itsstilllife)
I could go on and on, but I shall stop here. I didn’t talk much about Dani Reese, but my love for her could launch a thousand posts, there’s also Crews’ obsession with fruit and fascination with technology (“It’s like living in the future!” but there is no future, there is only now) and the whole Zen thing in the show was really great too (“I’m not attached to this car. I’m not attached to this car.” “No Zen for Daddy?”).
Life is strange and wonderful and terrible and beautiful and intricate, and Life really does justice to it.