While almost comically rocky at times, "Life" is the only new NBC drama to become more encouraging after watching multiple episodes.
With the exception of the creatively tumultuous "Bionic Woman," NBC has now sent critics at least two episodes of each of its fresh fall shows. Watching two additional episodes of "Chuck," for example, confirmed its easy-going slacker charm. Watching a second episode of "Journeyman" confirmed my initial suspicions that the time travel acrobatics really just aren't worth the effort (and that Kevin McKidd can't do an American accent). And one additional episode of "Life" was enough to convince me that maybe all of the nervous tics that plague the pilot will eventually subside, leaving one of the season's most fascinating new characters to stand alone.
Played by Damian Lewis, Detective Charlie Crews is a mighty quirky guy. You would be quirky too, if you'd just been sprung from the hoosegow after serving a lengthy jail stint for a crime you didn't commit, if you'd just received a massive settlement from the city of Los Angeles, if you'd decided to return to the police force despite your new wealth and all of your fellow officers either distrusted or resented you. If your new partner (Sarah Shahi) was a recovering drug addict with a variety of sexual hang-ups who may or may not be prepared to narc you out to the department brass for the smallest infraction, that might add to your twitchiness.
The pilot for "Life," created by Rand Ravich, is about Charlie's idiosyncrasies to the exclusion of any sort of procedural or ongoing plot. Since they seemingly didn't get fresh fruit in prison, Charlie is constantly eating fruit, which would be fine except that he's also constantly commenting on the marvelousness of the fruit he's eating. Since he was in jail for many years, Charlie would be a bit behind the curve on technology, which would make sense except that every new gizmo requires his slack-jawed wonderment. Charlie's new-found appreciation for Zen wisdom would be fine except that he can't stop talking about how he isn't connected to his worldly possessions. After half an episode, it would be tempting to scream, "I get it already!" and switch the TV off.
The risk of that decision would be missing out on the work Lewis is doing here. Familiar from "Band of Brothers," Lewis is an impressive and nuanced actor (check out the indie "Keane" on DVD) and he's providing the humanizing touch that keeps Charlie from washing away as a series of writerly affectations. Lewis shows Charlie's wide-eyed appreciation at merely being a part of the outside world, but he's as smartly intuitive and hard to double-talk as the eponymous leads in "House" or NBC's somewhat similar and cancelled-too-soon "Raines."
Lewis gets to stand out more in the second episode, which tones down the character's foibles (though he's still agog over at least three different pieces of fruit) and more clearly suggests that the business of "Life" will mix both the procedural aspects and Charlie's ongoing quest to get revenge on the people who framed him. The latter aspect is more intriguing than the former.
As clearly portrayed as Charlie is, the supporting characters around him are a bit blurry. This is the most impressed I've ever been with Shahi as an actress, but she's less capable than Lewis when it comes to making her peculiarities feel organic. And speaking of feeling organic, after two episodes, I don't have a clue how Adam Arkin's previously incarcerated accountant (who lives above Charlie's garage) and Brooke Langton, his faithful (and hot) attorney are going to relate to the ongoing drama. I'm just less interested in those characters than I am in Charlie's former partner Bobby (Brent Sexton), who may have suffered his own blowback from the accusations around Charlie.
Even after the encouraging second episode, I'm keeping "Life" on a short leash. If Charlie's still going on about produce after four or five episodes, I may take my own so-called life elsewhere.