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NBC Needs To Extend Its "Life"
February 25, 2009  | By David Bianculli
life-two-top-cops.jpgAgainst the unstoppable juggernaut of Fox's American Idol and the can't-miss mysteries of ABC's Lost, NBC's Life is getting lost in the mix. But it shouldn't be. Its stories, and its actors, are too impressive and likable to go unnoticed...

Yet Life, whose newest episode premieres tonight at 9 ET, is getting trounced in its time slot. Not just by those two shows, but also by Criminal Minds on CBS, a much less inventive and entertaining police procedural. It's a shame -- and a lot of the shame belongs to NBC, for putting it in a time slot where almost any show is guaranteed to fail. I watch every Idol, and every Lost -- but I also watch every Life, just as faithfully. (Thank you, TiVo.)

If you have the capability to time-shift with a VCR or DVR, please record tonight's Life and give it a try. If you liked the witty banter of ABC's Pushing Daisies, you'll love Life. If you enjoyed the sardonic byplay of investigators on Homicide: Life on the Street, you'll love life. And if you treasure shows that give you defiantly unique cops -- such classics as Columbo and Twin Peaks -- you'll love Life, too.

Damian Lewis, who was dazzling in imported British dramas before dropping his accent to play Charlie Crews on Life, is a genuine-article TV star here. His character is given a compelling back story -- a cop framed for murder, who served many years in prison and in solitary before being exonerated, reinstated, and compensated with a small fortune. His years of confinement have left him different: zenlike in some ways, quietly intense in others, and addicted to the one thing he couldn't get in prison. Fresh fruit.


His partner, Dani Reese, is played by Sarah Shahi, who puts up with Crews and his weird ways with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. You might expect sexual tension as a subtext, but one way this show subverts the usual formulas is to get Reese involved, instead, with their mutual boss, Captain Tidwell, played by Donal Logue. Meanwhile, at home, Crews has opened his plush home to a fellow former convict, Ted, an embezzler played by Adam Arkin.

There's a secondary recurring plot, in which Crews stubbornly, obsessively investigates the murder that put him in prison. But you don't need to bother with any of that to five in and enjoy Life. The byplay between the characters -- between Crews and Reese, Reese and Tidwell, Crews and Tidwell, Crews and Ted -- is wonderful.


And tonight, as Reese gets farmed out for an undercover FBI job, Reese pairs with another cop, Brent Sexton's Robert Stark, who gets more screen time tonight than he's gotten all season. And he, too, is fun to watch. This is an ensemble drama with a light, deft touch, powered by some of the wittiest, most natural performances to be found in prime time.

Which reminds me: a recent New York Times review slammed Shahi, dismissing her performance as something subpar. Everyone's entitled to an opinion -- but in my opinion, she's subpar only in the golf-score sense. She more than holds her own with Lewis, and he's one of the best actors on TV right now.

But when not even NBC appreciates the true value of Life, why am I surprised?



Sean Dougherty said:

You hit this one dead-on. I started watching Life on DVD last summer and got hooked. It is by far-and-wide measure NBC's best cop show (and if I didn't work in corporate PR I probably would rank it ahead of inside-joke filled 30 Rock as well) and it would be a tragedy if it didn't gain a wider audience.

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 11:08 AM

ceolaf said:

Last season, they toned down Shahi's hotness -- though now an actress, she used to be a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. They put her clothing that hid her curves, they hid her hair and they had her as a tightly wound and wounded individual.

This year, they've played it up. Big time. Her hair is out. She is dressed more attractively and they've even shown off her near-naked body on multiple occassions.

Is this good for the show? Well, it made her character a lot less interesting. The character's drug addiction -- clear and sober now, not often tempted -- was handled well last season. Now, its much more trite and cliche.

On the other hand, it surely was done to improve ratings. If you've got an actress that attractive, why not work it, right?

Another reason to watch Life. And also reason to feel bad about what shows have to do to get ratings.

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 11:33 AM

itranscribe said:

All I can say is BRAVO, Dave! I agree with everything you've written. This is an incredible show with very strong performances that is not being given a chance. The fact that the strike last year shortened its season did not help. Your summary of the back story of the show, which can be complex, was excellent! I'm stealing it for the times I try to explain it to friends! Thank you for giving the show a much-needed spotlight.

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 11:48 AM

itranscribe said:

Actually, I take one thing back from my last comment -- I don't agree with you about Criminal Minds. While I enjoyed it a little more with Mandy Patinkin, Joe Montegna (one of my many favorites) is an excellent replacement. It's still a very good show.

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 11:52 AM

Christina S. said:

I love this show. Look forward to it every week. I've watched it since it began, and I agree with you - top notch cast, excellent characters; Damian Lewis is perfect in this part. It's a no-brainer for me. I stopped watching "Idol" in season two and never actually started "Lost", but this is a show I would seek out in any time slot. However, being a pessimist about broadcasting decisions, I'm sure the show will get lost in the shuffle. One can only hope....

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 1:23 PM

Sally W. said:

I hope NBC gives "Life" another chance. I was pleasantly surprised that they renewed it after the tv writers' strike, and when I was able to watch "Life," I enjoyed the cast interaction (I'm still not into Crews' running mystery of the conspiracy of his arrest/conviction, but I love it when Crews and Ted are paired up; Damian Lewis and Adam Arkin are so good!). There just aren't many amazing actors like Lewis on tv, playing Soames on the "Forsythe Saga" on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre - as angsty as that was - and then as Crews? What talent! I also thought that Sarah Shahi did well last season as the addict Reece; she seemed to show growth in what I thought was a convincing manner. I don't quite understand her fling with the lieutenant this season, but maybe she's really moved on with her life after grappling with the drugs. Donal Logue is a good addition though, even if I don't quite get his character and Reece being together!

However, it was just terrible that "Life" was up against "Lost" tonight; I couldn't miss "Lost," so I might have to settle for catching "Life" on-line.

Comment posted on February 25, 2009 11:22 PM

Simon Hardcastle said:


I agree absolutely that Life is a show that definitely deserves more attention. It is to my mind the most interesting police show on TV at the moment.

FYI - Damian Lewis is a Brit who, since Band of Brothers has done an American accent rather than vica-versa. (I knew that -- and thought I'd written it that way. Sorry if it sounded vice versa. And for the best of his British stuff, seek out "Friends & Crocodiles." -- David B.)

Comment posted on February 26, 2009 8:47 AM

Deb Baldwin said:

Thank you, Mr. Bianculli, for pushing this show. I, too, like the addition of Donal Logue; he's just as eccentric and funny as the rest of the characters.

I have been exasperated with certain line-up schedules on all of the networks. Just about the time you get used to a show on a certain night and/or time slot, the network changes everything or the show is put on hiatus for two or three weeks. No wonder some shows fail. Therefore, I watch certain shows online and tape those I can't.

I was fearful that NBC wouldn't renew "Life" this season. I hope they stick with it.

Comment posted on February 26, 2009 2:49 PM

Tom Harrison said:

Thank you David for recommending this show. I DVR'ed the newest episode ( "hitman woman")and was instantly hooked. I went to Hulu and subscribed to all episodes so I can get caught up. Good cast, good dialogue, great show! (I love hearing this -- and am really glad you liked it as much as I do. Enjoy the first season, and what you've missed of the second! -- David B.)

Comment posted on February 27, 2009 6:39 PM

Greg said:

Sadly, there is just too much TV Worth Watching these days (All the great origianl stuff on HBO, Showtime, AMC, TMC, PBS, Biography in addtion to the 4 real networks). Maybe when NBC destroys the 10pm prime time Crime and Hospital drama hour with a talk show will there be more time for other things. As much as I love my late night talk shows I don't want another one to watch and surely not at 10pm, even if it is Jay.

As mcuh as I have wanted to check out things like Life or Life on Mars or Brothers and Sisters or Pushing Dasies, there is just no time as I barely keep up with everything else including seeing every movie ever made (worth viewing and many that I regret viewing). Maybe in the summer when some of my longtime favoites end or are in repeats can I begin to check out new things.

Comment posted on February 28, 2009 6:31 PM

pixie said:

I adore this show, I have not heard if it would be renewed and honestly wasn't concerned it wouldn't be but all this Chuck nonsense has me worried. Is life coming back?? I SO loved the season finale, it went out the way you alwasy WISH a season would end, but still left you with loads to look forward too. I have never seen such a good season finale. That is how ALL season finale's should be, not just show endings.

It was just plain kick ass.

Comment posted on May 4, 2009 12:13 PM
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