The great mystery of “Life” is why it isn’t a big fat hit. The cop drama/transcendence tale that comes to its seasonal, and perhaps (cue critical wailing and gnashing of teeth) final, end tonight has all the ingredients of a successful show.

There’s the now-requisite quirky setup: Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) is a cop wrongfully convicted of a hideous murder and is now back on the force with millions in settlement money, a fresh-fruit habit and an equal need for Zen and revenge.

There’s the terrific writing that can pull off both a series of murder victims found all over Los Angeles in trunks and a very funny ongoing Sharpie joke.


And, of course, there’s the great cast: Lewis is a marvel, with credits that include “Band of Brothers” and “Masterpiece Theater”; Sarah Shahi, as his partner, Dani Reese, pulls off a glorious balancing act of super cool and super hot; and Adam Arkin, though not on screen nearly enough, is pitch perfect as criminally ruined Chief Executive Ted Earley, now Crews’ housemate, business advisor and general foil. Even Donal Logue, whom it took some time to get used to as New York export Capt. Kevin Tidwell, got a better haircut and settled into the groove.

So how is it that this show founders while over at CBS “The Mentalist,” which is also good and smart but not nearly as sophisticated, soars? Seriously, I want to know. I’m sure “Life” creator Rand Ravich has some ideas, and no doubt the good folks at NBC Universal have others. So if, as rumor has it, this is it for “Life,” I invite representatives from all sides of the issue to chat with me, in these pages, about what the heck went wrong.

If, saints and NBC be praised, the show is renewed for another season, well, then, as Emily Litella would say, nevermind.

In any case, tonight’s season finale seems to be preparing for the worst, with many loose ends coming together, if not in a big Sorry-You’ve-Been-Downsized-Appreciation-Party bow, then at least tightly enough that should this (heaven forbid) be the end, there is a satisfying sense of closure to the Charlie Crews story arc. In the previous episode, Reese, whose recent interview with the FBI turned out to be more about nailing Crews than her future in law enforcement, has gone missing. When Crews visits jailed master-villain and arch nemesis Roman Nevikov (played by Garret Dillahunt with an accent far more Old Hollywood Transylvanian than Russian) for more information, he discovers that Nevikov is gone too and has paid an underling to serve his time.

It doesn’t take a Zen master to put two and two together. “You can’t always get what you want,” Crews tells Earley when he realizes what has happened.

“What do you want?”

“I want a peaceful soul. I need a bigger gun.”

He also needs to find Mickey Rayborn, the presumed murdered political macher and former cop played with career-capping oiliness by William Atherton, and figure out the connection between the two men. With the help of his temporary partner Jane Seever (Gabrielle Union), he does, of course, and by the end of the episode we have learned several things about the conspiracy that put Crews behind bars and how, exactly, he survived there.


It’s a good season finale, though there are times when it feels a little rushed, as if the writers were trying to reach as many conclusions as humanly possible without totally closing the door on another season. “Life” has always been a stylized rather than a reality-based cop show, spending its art direction budget on big artistic shots of shocking yet often beautiful crime scenes, capturing the constant war between concrete and nature that is Los Angeles and scrimping on, say, car interior scenes in which whatever was rolling by looked oddly like a home movie.

Likewise, the plots were never intended to expose actual crime investigation procedures. “Life” is not about what made cops tick, or even criminals tick; it is about the experiences that shape human identity, about the fragility and toughness of the human spirit and how arbitrarily that is portioned out. What turns one man into an enraged killer turns another to the Zen, though a bit of both remains in each.

A lot of shows these days have broken heroes, and at some point transformation becomes part of the plot, though most often in fairly predictable ways at the hands of friends or romantic interests. “Life” began after the transformation took place and has tried to show what such a dramatic shift in personality might look like and mean. Yes, it’s fun to see Crews use his jail yard smarts to cope with criminals, and even his newfound appreciation for fruit to solve crimes, but more inspiring was watching Ravich, Lewis and their team attempt to create a whole version of an archetype: a wounded but close to fully realized man.

We can only hope we haven’t seen the last of him.




Where: NBC

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)