Life's Charlie Crews has Me Baffled

Normally, I'm a purist for the police procedural. Monk, Psych, in fact, most of USA's "Characters Welcome" crime-with-a-twist shows, annoy the heck out of me. My only exception: NBC's Life.

Okay, so Life is pretty much just a slot-filler for an otherwise top-ranking schedule (Heroes, Friday Night Lights, The Office). Charlie Crews is a cop who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Now exonerated, Crews' lawyer brokers a settlement by which Crews wins something like $50 million plus the opportunity to be a detective back in the LAPD.

Of course, the show is ridiculous on so many levels. First and foremost, the premise: as if the LAPD would ever, ever, ever let the City Attorney broker a settlement to allow a convicted felon, exonerated or not, wear a badge. And even if they did, they sure wouldn't assign him to a case like in last week's episode "Civil War": Two Iranian kids are murdered and left in a convenience store freezer case, and a third is kidnapped. In the real world, that'd be at the center of a national media storm. And, as we've learned from Without A Trace, kidnapping is the FBI's jurisdiction.

And yet, somehow, star Damian Lewis convinces me to suspend all possible disbelief.

Lewis is a frighteningly talented British actor, who, as a tall redhead with a pointy face, has so far stumbled in scoring meaningful Hollywood roles. While his classmates Joseph Fiennes and Daniel Craig have progressed into household names, Lewis's best success was a lead in Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers and a small but crucial role in the quickly forgotten Stephen King thriller Dreamcatcher.

In Charlie Crews, Lewis has crafted a dark character, rich with quirks and passion. Prison turned Crews into a Zen-fully loopy philosopher, who, much to the annoyance of his partner, regularly loses himself in simple musings on fruit and butterflies and the mysteries of life. Yet, as silly and lofty as his ethereal ramblings are, they amazingly don't seem to contradict his violent reflexes. He'll gleefully engage in knife fights with perps; he's got no qualms about kicking the crap out of woman-beaters in bar restrooms. Crews is obsessively mapping out the conspiracy to frame him in a Memento-style chart on the wall of one of the empty rooms in his mansion. And he does love his hookers.

There are crime dramas. And then there are crime dramas with twists. The difference is enormous.

Look at the Law & Order dynasty, the CSI family: for both, the writers downplay the detectives' characters and choose the crimes themselves, the sheer depravity of human nature, to command center stage. Sure, SVU's Olivia and Elliot wrestle with their inner demons. Sure, CSI Miami's Horatio has a teenage kidnapper for a long-lost son. They're still tangential to the mysteries they solve, though; the episodes that focus on their personal problems are generally the worst in season. Gary Sinise and Jerry Orbach could be animatronic for all I care, as long as they're still out there piecing together the stories ripped from the headlines.

Yet, you get an actor like Damian Lewis, and the character captures you. I'll be surprised is Life stays on the air long enough to solve the mystery of his conviction... but that's life, you know?