(NBC) “That's an interesting fruit.” Life begins with an unusual premise: police officer Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) has been sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but is exonerated by DNA evidence after serving twelve years. He receives a settlement — no one is sure exactly how much — but, to everyone’s surprise, he returns to work as a detective.
This is an intriguing twist on the police procedural. Crews now understands both sides of the law, having lived as both a cop and a convict. He’s also become something of a savant when it comes to seeing the patterns that underlie the crimes he investigates with his new partner Detective Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). This preternatural insight may stem from the meditative techniques Crews studied while in prison; he received regular beatings from the other inmates, and learned Zen philosophy to cope with the anger and pain he was experiencing.
Lewis plays Crews as a quirky, somewhat amusing character, despite the dark undertones of his past. This is a man who may well have been driven slightly mad by the torment he’s endured, but he’s also a man who has learned to relax and take life as it comes. As Crews' former attorney Constance Griffiths (Brooke Langton) puts it in one of the documentary-style scenes that intercut the drama, “Life was his sentence, and life is what he got back.”
Crews is half eccentric millionaire, half earnest do-gooder. He has a mercurial wit and eyes that frequently stare into the middle-distance as though he's becoming lost in thoughts of the past. He keeps talking about “being in the Moment,” but the Moment is something that's forever escaping him.
His partner Reese isn't entirely on one side of the law either; she's a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, having fallen into addiction during her time as an undercover narcotics officer. As such, she's uniquely placed to understand Crews' tendency to circumvent the law in pursuit of true justice. However, she's also uniquely placed to suffer the consequences if these transgressions are found out by her superior, Lieutenant Davis (Robin Weigert), who keeps a close watch on Crews' behavior; she believes that Crews is only back to get some kind of revenge on the department that allowed him to be framed and imprisoned. Shahi gives Reese a brittle vulnerability that brings to mind Jennifer Carpenter's brilliant portrayal of the fragile Debra Morgan on Dexter.
Interestingly, Life explores some of the same moral territory as Christopher Nolan's Batman films – asking whether real justice and truth ever have more than a passing relationship to human legal procedure. If you loved The Dark Knight Rises and are now feeling a need to fill the void it left behind, this show may do the trick. When Crews shoots a suspect in a firefight, then cradles the dying man and whispers, “It was just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.” you know you're in for a wild ride.
Life alternates between idiosyncratic humor and pitch-black observations on the fleeting nature of existence. Tonally, it's not too far from David Lynch and Mark Frost's landmark Twin Peaks. It's a hypnotic, strange, and funny – shining a light into the uncertain spaces between life and death.