Fall TV preview: ''Life'' -- The NBC drama gets a second chance at living

Returning Drama
Starts September 29, 10-11PM, NBC

Morning dawns gauzy and white in the suburban yards of L.A.’s Pacific Palisades, with light blazing through the windows of an otherwise ordinary clapboard house that’s been overrun by the cast and crew of a television show. Between takes of a hostage standoff, actor Damian Lewis watches the chaos of production while calmly eating a banana. And if you don’t get the delicious humor of that image, you probably didn’t watch the first season of Life.

Of course, you’re hardly alone. NBC’s newest cop show spent its first year as a quiet underdog, so allow us to catch you up on its serialized-yet-episodic (serialsodic?) story line: LAPD officer Charlie Crews (Band of Brothers‘ Lewis) was sentenced to life in prison for murders he didn’t commit. Exonerated after 12 years, he’s flush with millions from a settlement and back on the force, trying to find the real killer. The time behind bars left him with an obsessive craving for fresh fruit and a fruity obsession with Zen philosophy. ”He’s a little eccentric,” says Lewis. ”Self-help tapes…Crews is kind of amused by them. But also I think he finds them very helpful.” Not amused is his new partner, Dani Reese (The L Word‘s Sarah Shahi), a buttoned-up female detective fresh out of rehab whose father played a key role in the conspiracy that put Crews away. It’s watching these polar-opposite partners learn to trust each other that makes Life, at its core, pretty fun. ”Of all the dramas out there, this one isn’t supposed to be grim,” says Shahi. ”It’s about reinvention, and getting a second shot.” Now, to the great relief of the 7.1 million viewers who tuned in for all 11 episodes of Life‘s strike-truncated first year, the show is getting a second shot too.

And it’s deserved, if for no other reason than its willingness to diverge from the procedural norm. With flashy, sun-soaked panache, creator Rand Ravich (The Astronaut’s Wife) mixes the theories of The Way of Zen author Alan Watts, the documentary style of Errol Morris, and the eccentricities of Kojak to tell the tale of Crews, a man who’s looked into the void and come back cracked. ”A guy with a gun and a badge and a vendetta, who’s failing at Zen, is a very interesting character to write,” says Ravich. In Lewis, he found the necessary combination of strength, sensitivity, and goofiness: ”He does not mind that the joke is on him at all. But he can also drag you into a bathroom and kick your ass.” Lewis swapped his native British accent for an American one for the role — mimicking Ravich’s clipped New Jersey rhythms — and anchors Crews in an almost animalistic mentality. ”I made a decision that to survive maximum security as a cop for 12 years, your senses needed to be finely honed,” says Lewis. ”He knows what it’s like to be both predator and prey, and he remains keenly tuned in to that idea.”

In December’s finale, Crews found the man who committed the murders he was accused of; next on the agenda is to track down the men who framed him. He’ll also keep pursuing his ex-wife (Jennifer Siebel), who remarried during his time behind bars. ”He feels very betrayed by her,” says Lewis. ”It’s unfinished business. She was the love of his life.” Throughout the season, Ravich says, Crews will ”keep going deeper into what that time in prison did to him, what he lost, and what he’s gained, and who he is. As he answers these questions about the conspiracy, it should make him ask more questions.” In an effort to broaden the story and lift some of the workload off Lewis — as well as juice the show’s funny — Donal Logue (Grounded for Life) joins the cast this season as the department’s captain, Kevin Tidwell. Logue calls Tidwell ”a bit of an eight ball,” one who will score points with Shahi’s Reese: In between battling her addictions and learning of her father’s participation in putting Crews away, she’ll find herself oddly attracted to the new boss. Also getting lucky is Crews’ prison buddy and current roommate, Ted Earley (Adam Arkin), who continues to romance Olivia (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), the fiancée of Crews’ father.

While that sounds like plenty of plot to keep fans engaged for the first half of the season, NBC has scheduled Life to air Mondays and Fridays for two weeks, meaning the drama will tear through four hours before it even hits its regular Friday-at-10 slot. ”We’re on five times a week, from 6:45 to 7:45, and then it’s every other Thursday,” jokes Ravich when asked about the strange scheduling move. NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman denies that the network is burning off the series quickly out of a lack of confidence — instead, he says they’re just trying to gain as broad an audience as possible. ”It had a passionate base,” Silverman notes, complimenting the show’s ”quirkiness and texture…. Because of the strike, it didn’t really have a chance to grow, so we wanted to make sure we were giving it every opportunity. I think you’re going to see we have more and more patience at NBC.” Wow. Get out your fruit, Life fans; it sounds like the Zen is catching.