Larger than LIFE

on February 25, 2010

Tonight I finished watching LIFE, a two-season television show starring Damian Lewis on NBC. It was cancelled, but somehow that seems to happen a lot with some of my favorite shows.

I can tell you why it was cancelled. 1) There was little action for a police drama. 2) It was too different (for a police drama) for network audiences (I suspect if it was on the WB of FOX it wouldn’t have been cancelled.) 3) It was subtle.

The premise of LIFE is simple, but don’t let the simplicity of a good log line fool you into thinking it was a simple show. A cop goes to prison for 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit. When exonerated, he’s given $50 million in restitution–and his job back.

Intrigued? I was, thanks to Toni who clued me into this series a few weeks ago.

When most people think of police drama, they think Law & Order. Hill Street Blues. CSI. They expect highs and lows, gun fights and car chases and clear good guys and bad guys. Viewer expectations in television are as important as reader expectations in genre fiction. LIFE was different, and because it was network television–the big guys–they didn’t quite know how to do different. But it’s not really their fault, it’s (again) viewer expectation: network television + crime drama = action.

What makes LIFE a brilliant show is, in fact, it’s subtly. Dialogue is crucial, but even more important than the dialogue is the actors themselves–how they react to what is laid out before them. How they see it, how they think about it, how they work through the puzzle.

I’d never seen Damian Lewis act before, but he was perfectly cast as Charlie Crews. While most viewers might expect him to turn violent when he confronts the men who framed him, his internal battle is clearly shown in his expression. Not all actors could pull this off. But the writers and creators are as much to credit with this as the actors. When Charlie crosses the line, what would be unacceptable is now acceptable. We are with him, we understand him, even when he doesn’t talk his trauma to death. The subtly of action–and the clues that the still waters run very deep (pardon the cliche)–makes the show a bit too “smart” for the casual viewer.

I’m not saying that television viewers aren’t smart–believe me, I’m a tv addict. I love good television. I have multiple shows going on now–HEROES, FRINGE (which I suspect will be cancelled), L&O SVU, CASTLE, SUPERNATURAL, and my daughters and I are half-way through season 4 of BUFFY. But for a mass audience, there is a certain formula for success. High stakes. Action. Love. Betrayal. Hate. Irony. Puzzles. While LIFE had a crime that was investigated and solved in every episode, it also had an overarching plot that was threaded through every episode. If you didn’t watch it from the beginning, you might be lost.

Consider THE X-FILES (Fox) and SUPERNATURAL (WB) and BUFFY (WB). All three shows have “stand alone” episodes, and their over-arching storyline is easy to understand even if you missed a few. (SUPERNATURAL seasons 4 and 5 went away from that–they are hard to follow if you haven’t been there from at least the beginning of season 4, maybe 3, but they still have the stand-alones.) But . . . they were all on “off” networks. Networks who could survive with smaller audiences–niche audiences.

Ok, going back to the show. All the characters were strong, but LIFE was Charlie Crews. Donald Maass says in FIRE IN FICTION:

“An aura of greatness comes foremost not from who a given character may be, but from the profound impact that character has on others.”

When I think about why Charlie Crews was such a great character, I could focus on the details of the characterization–his love of fruit (he couldn’t eat fresh fruit in prison.) How he would use his siren and authority to pull over his ex-wife’s new husband (she thought he was guilty, divorced him and remarried.) His affinity for Zen philosophy or his odd comments that have us tilted our head quizzically just like his partner, Dani Reese (who represents us, the viewer, the outsider, in so many ways.)

But Charlie wasn’t a great character because of his idiosyncrasies. He wasn’t a great character by the characterization–the combination of writing and acting. He was a great character because of how HE impacted those around him.

A catalyst is: “a person or thing that causes a change.”

Technically, a catalyst is something that causes a change that is in and of itself not affected. But I like this definition from the online Free Dictionary:

“A substance, usually used in small amounts relative to the reactants, that modifies and increases the rate of a reaction without being consumed in the process.”

Putting the chemical relationship aside, consider your hero (in this case Charlie Crews) as a catalyst. To be a true hero, they must increase the action/reaction/stakes but not be consumed–diminished–or destroyed in the process. They must create something better than themselves to be a hero. Solve a crime without becoming a criminal. Save a life without taking another. Save the world without dying themselves.

A true catalyst changes those around them. They become better–bigger–happier–than they were before they met the catalyst. Every person Charlie Crews came in contact with was changed . . . even while Charlie remained the same. The major characters–his partner, his captain, his former partner, his former prison-mates–were of course impacted and became better people because of how Charlie interacted with their lives. But even the minor characters–the crime survivors, for example–were better off because of something that Charlie gave of himself to them–that didn’t change Charlie himself. And I think that’s so important in fiction.

Characters must have an impact on the world around them. They don’t live in a bubble. Every action has a reaction; every choice has consequences.

Toni emailed me last week and said she’d just finished watching the Season Two finale (and the end of the series) and wanted to talk about it with me. Now I know why. It was truly the single best ending to a series I’ve seen. Everything came full-circle. We had the answers, but nothing was laid out on a silver platter. We did have to work for it. And Charlie changed in some ways, but he was never consumed or diminished by the process. He could have been–he should have been–but he was a hero.

This is one series I’ll be watching again, from the beginning.

If you want to talk about LIFE, I’m game! Or if you have another larger than life character from books or television or movies that may be overlooked as a pitch-perfect character, tell us who and why.