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‘Life’ support from the network

Fernandez is a Times staff writer.

Charlie Crews is a patient man. But how much longer is this Zen-striving Los Angeles police detective supposed to wait for TV viewers to discover that they can’t live without his quick wit, astute observations or sparkling red hair?

Even a man seeking to have no worldly attachments would find it difficult to ignore the sophomore slump that afflicts not only his show, NBC’s critically acclaimed “Life,” but all prime-time television this season as well. No show that had its first season truncated by the writers strike last year has yet bounced back in the ratings.

But “Life” did receive a double-boost this month when NBC moved it back to Wednesdays from the dark hole of Fridays and gave it a full-season order. The drama, which stars Damian Lewis as the police detective who wrongfully spent 12 years in prison, registered 8 million viewers per show last year and has averaged just 6 million this season. Despite the ratings dip, NBC, much as it has done with critically acclaimed, low-rated shows such as “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock,” is sticking by “Life.”

“We’re trying to get ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘House’ to be our lead-in,” joked creator Rand Ravich, wishing that he could steal those shows from ABC or Fox.

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“It’s a confusing time in network television. But to the network’s credit, so far, they’re not equating the numbers to the show. They’re saying it’s got to do with where we’re putting you or promoting you and what your lead-in is. They love the show.”

Or maybe the three-month labor stoppage should be blamed. The only two sophomore shows being embraced by viewers are the CW’s “Gossip Girl” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” the only series that returned with original episodes after the strike. NBC’s “Chuck,” and ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” and “Dirty Sexy Money” are still struggling to find an audience.

You’d think it would be easy for Charlie Crews to gain a following -- after all, many cop shows, even new ones such as CBS’ “The Mentalist,” command big audiences. And Crews is not just a cop: He’s a great detective, with a sunny, empathetic disposition; a penchant for fruit; and a beautiful, troubled partner, Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Framed for homicide, Crews lost his badge and was sent to prison; he used the time to become a better person, learning to live in the moment.

“I enjoy Crews’ contradictions,” said Lewis, during a scene break underneath the 6th Street bridge in downtown L.A. for an episode that will air Wednesday. “I enjoy the blend of dark and light and the possibilities that are presented to you when you’re able to write a character with a totally blank canvas.”

Like Crews, the show itself is light and dark and defies genre, making it a challenge to promote. Is it a procedural? A serialized drama? A dramedy?

It could even claim to be a bit of a mystery, given an ongoing story line within the show involving a documentary about Crews being shot by an anonymous source. (It’s such a mystery, in fact, that Ravich will not even discuss it.)

The show is all -- and none of -- these things. Perhaps, the best way to describe “Life” is it starts and ends with Crews’ character.

“We could really enjoy great extravagant things with him and let him make mistakes and always forgive him because he went through such a dark period in his life,” executive producer Far Shariat said. “But at the same time he can be a little damaged. There’s a lot of arbitrarily quirky characters on TV -- people who seem a little bit different or weird for the heck of it -- and this seemed like a grounded place to come from.”

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The show’s underlying conspiracy -- who framed Crews, and why? -- is the dramatic engine driving the program.

Last year, the detective discovered who committed the triple homicide he was wrongly imprisoned for, but he still hasn’t figured out who orchestrated it. The clues, so far, lead to as many as six people.

“Charlie had this very visceral moment when he found the actual guy who should have been sitting in that cell for 12 years,” Ravich said. “He found him but he has to ask himself: Can I let him go? If there are people out there who are responsible for doing this damage to you and perhaps to other people, as Zen as he would like to be, Charlie can’t let it go. Is his life going to be this endless quest to answer these questions, which is a kind of prison, or can he be free? We like to think of Charlie Crews as failing at Zen.”

Indeed, by the end of the shortened first season, Crews had returned to a darker psychological place, but this year found him in a lighter mood, even joyous. The show adopted a more casual look, which included dropping partner Reese’s leather jacket and loosening her tight hair bun, and reveled in using Los Angeles as its backdrop.

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“There’s so much beautiful, available sunlight here,” Ravich said. As Crews is moving “through these dark things, we wanted to counterbalance that with a lot of it happening in a world of light.”

Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios, which produces the show, calls the professional relationship between Crews and Reese the “second coming of Mulder and Scully” from “The X-Files.” Beyond the cliched “cop partners who don’t get along,” the pair’s relationship is further complicated by the role Reese’s father may have played in Crews’ imprisonment.

“There is a world according to Charlie Crews. Part of that is that everything happens for a reason and everything is connected,” said Pope. “That might sound silly, but coming out of his life, with all the darkness, that can’t help but be affecting. And that’s what Dani responds to. Her problems seem small compared to what he’s been through and he’s still got a smile on his face and tries to enjoy a good piece of fruit or a beautiful sunset.”

As time has passed, Reese has grown more comfortable with the partner she didn’t originally want. And slowly, she’s been piecing together her father’s involvement in Crews’ setup.

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But her blossoming romantic relationship with her new boss (Donal Logue) could work against her -- and threaten her sobriety.

“It’s a natural progression of the dynamic of partners,” Shahi said. “At first, she was not amused by him at all. She’s the straight-laced one, the scientist. He’s got a kooky, Zen way of seeing inside people and together they’re able to solve the crime.”

In “Badge Bunny,” this week’s episode, the two detectives find themselves knee-deep in the world of police officers and the women who love them. Some fans have complained that Crews’ personal story -- that is, the investigation of the conspiracy behind his arrest -- has taken a back seat to the crime stories this sea- son.

But as Crews knows, patience can be a virtue -- because at the end of this week’s episode, neither Crews nor the viewers will know what hit them.

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com


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