Those of us who were enthralled with HBO’s “Band of Brothers” know how powerful an actor Damian Lewis can be. In that series he portrayed the alcohol-free Lieutenant Winters and he did so so completely that you could not help but imagine that he actually was Winters and lived everything you saw. Since then, he has popped up from time to time in various movies,some good and some bad. He made a critical splash a few years back as the psychologically disturbed man in a movie called “Keane.”
Lewis is now the latest English actor to perfect his American accent and portray powerful, memorable, and interesting characters on television. Hugh Laurie is a doctor. Kevin McKidd is doing it in “Journeyman.” Now comes Charlie Crews in “Life.”
Lewis plays Crews, the cop who was wrongly and unjustly accused of a brutal murder and sentenced to life in prison. While in there he was routinely beaten, and had nearly every bone in his body broken. He also developed a new sense of the universe and his place in it, developing some kind of internal peace through some strange combination of zen and, well, just being a little weird.
After twelve years in prison, new evidence arrives that shows he was innocent. He is sprung and a lawsuit against the state, the city and just about everyone else has landed him a huge amount of money. Crews hires a character portrayed by Adam Arkin, a former business genius turned prisoner, to manage his money. He drives fast cars and lives in a huge mansion with no furniture in it and he has returned to the police force that helped put him into prison.
Crews uses his new zen-like outlook on life to help solve crimes. The crimes themselves are not particularly original. These are the standard murders and scumbags you would find on other shows. What sets this one apart is the running storyline of how Crews will maintain his position on the force, solving those crimes, and yet still find the evidence against the people who set him up and bring them to justice. You see, Crews has a giant secret room in his empty mansion with pictures of everyone involved in the crime and his frame-up, with black lines connecting them. Does any of it make any sense? Not yet.
At the center of all of this is Lewis. He plays Crews as a man with a strange smile on his face. He seems to know more than what is really going on, but then he does something that makes you wonder. Is it an act? Has he really reached some profound and new sense of the universe, or is he just pretending that he has to throw everyone off?
At the same time there are moments of humor that is surprisingly funny, some of the best so far centered around his love of fast cars. In the first episode he drives his new car very fast, all the time saying, “I am not attached to this car. I am not attached to this car.” So, at the end of the episode, when something bad happens to that car, those words come back in a strange kind of irony. It’s a good pay-off to a joke.
Lewis also manages to portray the confusion of his character without making it seem too cliche. Since he was in prison during the advent of the internet, Crews has no idea what cell phone cameras are or what an IM is. He is stunned when his car seems to start talking to him.
The supporting players here are also very good. They all come on the screen, each seems to be potentially hiding something, and they all speak directly to the camera. It is as if there is a documentary being filmed about Crews, but we never see this film or the film crew. So, who is making it? Who are these people talking to?
I did not expect to enjoy this show. The last thing the television airwaves need is another cop show. Yet, when I sat down to watch the first episode, I found myself getting into it. I was hooked by the time the giant tractor appeared in the final scene of that first episode.
“Life” is on NBC on Wednesay night. I worry about it conflicting with “Lost” later in the season, but for now, I am hooked on “Life.” Check it out.