Nov 26, 2008
Life is a 1-hour drama that has been trying to break through after a strike-shortened season last year. I hope it does because it adds a number of fun twists to the police procedural that is the staple of American TV drama.
In the TV Drama Class, I go into all of the structural elements that must be present to construct a successful show. One of these has to do with the genre. Like film, TV requires that you take an existing popular genre or combination of genres and give it a unique twist. Life is a mix of detective, crime and buddy picture, and that’s a pretty strong combination. Yes, we’ve seen cop shows with partners many times before (for example, Law and Order SVU), but they aren’t using the buddy picture techniques. A buddy picture is a kind of action comedy in which the buddies form some kind of odd couple. The buddies love each other in a platonic way, but they act like a married couple, with constant lighthearted bickering.
In Life, the odd couple is Charlie Crews, a cop who was framed for a multiple murder-robbery and sent to jail before gaining his freedom and returning to the force along with $50,000,000 in “We’re sorry” money. He’s gained a Zen sensibility during his twelve years behind bars. And that drives his partner nuts. She’s Dani Reese, a practical, by-the-book cop who also just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, like any number of other drop-dead gorgeous cops in Hollywood crime shows (for example, Law and Order SVU). Just once I’d love it if a character on one of these shows would ask our investigator if she realizes she’s beautiful enough to be an actress.
The two lead characters play well off each other, and I believe one of the reasons this show hasn’t done better is that the writers have not played this element up even further. One reason might be that the Reese character lacks detail. For a buddy picture to work the buddies must be equal. The writers have given Crews tremendous detail, to such a degree that he is clearly the hero of the show. This imbalance is a big mistake. William Goldman once told me that when they were shooting the early scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch has to fight Harvey for leadership of the gang, director George Roy Hill kept Sundance on his horse to visually increase Sundance’s stature relative to Butch. We forget that before the movie came out, Robert Redford was a nobody and Paul Newman was Paul Newman.
This may be why Life’s writers retooled the show this season by giving Reese and Crews a new boss, Captain Tidwell, with whom Reese could get romantically involved. Donal Logue, who plays the boss, is a funny actor and a welcome addition to the show. But while the move has boosted Reese’s importance a bit, the relationship between her and the boss is completely unbelievable. Hopefully the writers will strengthen this line, while also highlighting the more important buddy relationship between Reese and Crews.
Another structural element that determines a successful TV drama is the weave of the desire line. In other words, what gets accomplished in each episode and how are the episode’s goals intercut? Life uses a technique found in most cop shows of combining two main goals, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term goal is to solve the crime of that episode. The long-term goal is Crews’s determination to find the cops who framed him for the murder-robbery. The individual investigations all have a quirky quality that sets them apart from the standard crimes we see on most procedurals. For example, in a recent episode, Crews and Reese had to solve the murder of a mall Santa they find five minutes before the department store opens for holiday rush on Black Friday. They realize too late that the horde of hungry shoppers is going to trample their crime scene, and then discover that the shoppers have apparently taken Santa’s body as well.
The long-term investigation is more problematic. The conspiracy behind the murder-robbery and Crews’ frame-up is full of juicy possibilities, including one suspect who is Reese’s father. The brilliant Zen cop who sits in his mansion trying to unravel the conspiracy that took twelve years of his life is, besides being very un-Zen, great stuff. Which is why it’s been frustrating that the writers have done relatively little with it. I suspect that’s because they realize that once Crews figures out who did it, this line is over. The show’s creator has painted himself into a bit of a corner here. This concept is central to the premise of the show, and probably a good part of the reason Life got on the air in the first place. But it’s a big dead end when it comes to the extendability of the show.
Still, the writers must deal with this line. Giving it one or two scenes a show doesn’t work. Ignoring the line only makes it seem half-baked and unrelated to the main investigation in each episode. If the writers can expand this conspiracy from a single event in the past where Crews was framed to an ongoing, present-day corruption in the LAPD, this buddy picture of a Zen mind-master and his pragmatic, beautiful partner will turn into the hottest show on TV.