The Comedy In ‘Life’ – Charlie Picks Up The Wrong Call

life comedy in indexBickering while fighting crime.

We all have a core of what defines our viewing tastes. For me that is Drama and Comedy (Which is probably why ‘This Is Us’ appeals so much!). Yes, I can enjoy other genres (like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, and Action) but there has to be a strong emotional core (which is why ‘Arrival’ and ‘Her’ appeals more to me than ‘Ex-Machina’). So for this series, I will dig into titles that made it to my viewing list (at least garnering a 5/10) that might not be overtly a comedy yet has enough ‘comic beats’ to warrant shining a light on.

For this instalment, I’ll be looking at a TV show that could easily have aged as a procedural if not for the cast. Faced with the wrong people as leads and regular guests, it’s could easily be a 4/10 (or worse…3/10). Even after watching all episodes, showrunner Rand Ravich still isn’t a familiar name to me until I looked through his filmography and spotted Sci-Fi outlier ‘Second Chance’, also short-lived (lasting one season). When I noticed that he no longer has anything in development (officially), rather than lament the fact that the TV landscape has lost such a great mind, I’m going to hope that like David E. Kelley (who didn’t write anything for three years between ‘The Crazy Ones’ and ‘Big Little Lies’), he is waiting patiently for the right project.

The show follows Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) after he chooses to get reinstated in his job (with a promotion thrown in) and not just live off his massive settlement (rumoured to be $50 million) after spending 12 years in jail for murders that he didn’t commit. Now a detective, he is assigned to Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi) as her junior partner and together they solve crime (as well as stumble in their personal lives because they couldn’t let go past events: Charlie chasing after the person who killed his friends and framed him while Dani has a penchant for self-sabotage) bringing in their own uniqueness: Dani is closed off and generally in a hurry (when you’re busy it’s easy to skimp out in making connections, even with co-workers) while Charlie has managed to find his ‘zen’ while in prison. Their dynamic is cynic and empath. What makes the show a success is that on the surface things are the same between them as it was when they met in the first episode yet somehow everything changes and they end up absorbing the best of the other, which is essentially how the best partnerships work.

It’s eventual cancellation (after two seasons) is a direct result of low ratings, and also the likelihood that it wasn’t marketed well during its run so it can find its niche. Would it have fared better if it’s procedural elements put viewers on the edge of their seat? The way forward might have been just getting support from just enough NBC executives to tip it over to ‘Breaking Bad’ territory (AMC kept commissioning season after season until the right viewers eventually discovered it). If there are viewers who are passionate in spreading the word that they give DVD sets to people who might like them, I feel like the show would have been on track to get the right number of viewers.

Much of the humour is driven by each of their idiosyncrasies. Since prisoners do not get the privilege of consuming fresh fruit, Charlie wastes no time in eating as much as he can (and even investing in an organic farm) after he is set free and regularly offers them to his partner. Dani is in the process of living a life free of alcohol (and cocaine) and that gets folded into surprisingly darkly amusing gags (like having a superpower of ‘intuiting’ other fellow addicts). Then there’s the call that Charlie answers that was meant for Dani which pokes fun at her being very private. No, it isn’t the kind of gag that serves as a put-down for Charlie’s partner for being closed off and private (it is her choice and he respects that boundary), but more of him being accidentally caught in a situation that he knows would cause him to unwittingly cross that line (and piss-off Dani).

Other comedic moments:

  • Not attached to the car
  • Worms are just protein
  • The frustration of automatic taps
  • Myspace
  • The fight for control over the car stereo
  • Trying to convince a baddie to change their mind about forcing you to shoot up your new Maserati
  • Personal pineapples

The MVP definitely goes to Damian. I know I usually go with someone who is not the protagonist (because it’s a given that the strongest performer would be the person who gets the most screen time), but the Englishman just makes each scene he’s in as an event. I couldn’t even put my finger on any that feels like he’s just trying to get through the take. Of course I won’t forget Sarah who also doesn’t seem to have a moment of performing less than 100%. You’re probably going to debate with me (very nicely and kindly, I hope!) if I compare her performance to the three years she spent doing ‘Person of Interest’. I think both roles allowed her to be at her best (with Seasons 3 and 4 as the show’s standouts).

Adam Arkin playing Ted Earley, a guilty ex-con, lends his own gravitas while helping bring more levity to scenes. I’m actually about to say that he doesn’t smile at all…but then was reminded that he would have when Ted was with Olivia (Christina Hendricks echoing a bit of her Joan Holloway persona in ‘Mad Men’ — which incidentally was also the same year when it started airing). It took me awhile to realise that I was watching Clayne Crawford (‘Rectify‘ represent!) when he appeared in one episode doing his best with a deal-making character with a name that sounds like ‘evil’. There’s also a 25-year-old Tessa Thompson who seems to be in the process of finding her feet as there is a big difference in her screen presence as she inhabits Molly ten years later as the protagonist of ‘Men in Black: International‘.

The big thing I appreciated was how the show decides to deal with toxic masculinity (that men have to dominate everyone in their life, and constantly exude power to be respected by those around them) and gender stereotypes (Dani walks away after a witness makes assumptions about what it means to be a woman in the police force). Somehow both topics were dealt with the right seriousness mixed in with humour. After confronted with the possible complexities of being in the same hotel room (sleeping in different beds of course), Charlie doesn’t question (okay…he does…once) Dani making the decision when she changes her mind and takes both beds, leaving him to sleep in a dead man’s trailer in the middle of the desert.

I’m not so sure if the show would have allowed Dani to start a relationship (or at least the makings of one) with a superior officer if it were to air in 2021. If it did, I could be reminded that flaws are needed for characters to be fully themselves (as no human is without them, which one of the big reasons that 1998’s Mulan ended up being significantly superior than the 2020 live action remake). Yes, there are gags about that too. Even with rules in place, there are certain humans who would risk breaking them (and I will not even claim to understand what goes on in the minds of those who choose to speed or drive dangerously).

If you already have the entire DVD Boxset of ‘Homeland’, then this could be the one that can be added right next to it. Though it wasn’t the exact show that got Damian the attention of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, it’ll give you more of the humour that was quite sparse during his three season stint before joining ‘Billions’. It also showcases the best kind of atmosphere Sarah Shahi thrives on to display her impeccable comic timing.

Leigh Lim.
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