Background: Cop shows have been a staple on television since the earliest days of the entertainment mediums existence, each generation providing shows that offer glimpses into how we collectively view many aspects of modern life. While there is a definite rhythm used by most such shows even now, when you boil down each show you usually find all the basic elements no matter how gussied up they may be. Last season, the Hollywood Writer's Strike impacted most shows airing on network TV, truncating even the best of established shows, weakening newfound favorites such as Heroes by forcing plot threads to be altered as a result. This phenomenon did not escape the new shows either, one of them surviving the event thanks to a curious blend of drama, humor, and a single long arc that worked out nicely for the eleven episode season of Life: Season One.
Show: Life is the story of police officer Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) as he picks up the pieces of his own life that was shattered by a false accusation that landed him in prison for twelve years. Rather than let the experience drive him mad with anger, Charlie turned to Zen philosophy in an effort to survive his hostile environment, making him quite a quirky character as a result. When he was exonerated, he was given a large cash settlement (the show never specified how much though the back cover to the DVD set said it was $50 million) and returned to work as a homicide detective, his stated objective to simply "get on with his life" but everyone that knows him suspects that he had ulterior motives for returning to the force, a lot of people convinced that he really did commit the murders he was charged with despite the ruling of the court. One such thorn in his side is his immediate supervisor, Lt. Karen Davis (Robin Weigert), a hardnosed administrator that was partnered for years with a man that is later implicated by Charlie, though I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum for the purposes of this review.
Joining Charlie is detective Dani Reese (Sarah Shai), a tough gal that is also considered damaged goods, having gone too deep undercover in some drug busts that left her addicted and emotionally neutered. Dani just wants to keep her head down low and avoid additional scrutiny for her troubled past, her father having been the stereotypical cold bastard cop himself. She is not happy with her assignment to Crews and after a short time in the series, Lt. Davis makes it clear that while she handles her regular assignments, she is also supposed to catch Crews no matter what, lest she be fired. Having to rely on her seemingly nutty partner in life threatening situations while spying on him makes for a tight rope that angers her further, pushing her to the edge as she tries to walk the precarious position she is placed in. Initially, she is also probably the only one Charlie doesn't suspect of helping to set him up, largely because she was just a child when it all happened. In his corner is also Ted Early (Adam Arkin), a white collar criminal Charlie met in prison that was serving time for insider trading, the man helping Charlie with more than just investing his settlement when needed, even living at Charlie's palatial estate in order to facilitate his assistance. Rounding out the cast of regulars is Charlie's old partner officer Robert "Bobby" Stark (Brent Sexton), still stuck in patrol and looked down upon by much of the force for not providing Charlie with an alibi thanks to pressure from internal affairs as they made it clear that they would crucify him if he was caught lying.
The structure of the show is also kind of quirky in how the formulaic cop show has various elements tacked on, not least of which is a running documentary that appears intermittently in most episodes. This is where the viewer gets much of the background on what allegedly happened to send Charlie to jail, including clips of his former attorney Constance Griffiths (Brooke Langton) who feels guilty for moving on with her own life now that he has been exonerated, other officers, and those surrounding the crime. Each show is set to investigate some homicide that is not readily solvable, Charlie's reliance on looking at things from a completely different (weird) point of view ends up providing major clues but the show also gives ample time for Charlie to spend his spare time doing the two things he likes most in life; chasing attractive women and bedding them as well as investigating the conspiracy that landed him in prison. As the season progresses, Charlie is shown to have all the inner rage deep inside him too, controlling and focusing it with his Zen outlook but only barely at times when those around him are threatened or a piece of the puzzle is withheld from his grasp. He violates the rules repeatedly and shows no concern for going back to prison, a major thread being how he is still under an active internal affairs investigation throughout the season. The other gimmick (beside the philosophy angle displayed) is a wall of pictures and clippings that tie together a growing network of clues that ultimately lead the detective to those associated with the conspiracy, Charlie showing no problems using his old prison contacts to assist him as needed along the way.
I first saw Life when it followed the now defunct Bionic Woman, checking it out to see what the show was about. I did not expect a whole lot considering my limited knowledge of the cast, my general dislike of cop shows these days, and my remembrance of the whole Eastern philosophy used to solve a conspiracy approach that goes back to Kung Fu (among other shows). Charlie is also made to look guilty as sin for the crime as well as a true victim of a larger conspiracy just as often, the writers making sure to maintain enough distance to let the viewers figure out what is taking place. Considering the wealth of "quirky investigators saving the day" shows seen so often (like Monk, House and others), it did not look like I would enjoy it but I really did, quickly finding out that watching the episodes in order without missing any of them greatly enhanced the viewing experience, the shortened season quite possibly helping the producers to keep the show tighter than if it had a full run of shows (the exact opposite effect weakening most other shows by the way). That makes this DVD set especially appealing to me, despite the changes in some songs that I know will upset a few of you irrevocably, and I rated the set as Highly Recommended as a result. The second season begins again soon enough and I have to admit that I anticipate the writers to have plenty of room to follow up on given the way the season ended with a collar that all but cleared Charlie in the minds of many but set him on a date with destiny with the others involved in his imprisonment.
Picture: Life was presented in a crisp anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen color, some B&W clips tossed in at times during the documentary portions of the show, as presented in the MPEG-2 format. The 480i resolution was decent enough and the bitrate accommodated the material reasonably well but there were some substantially noisy parts of the show too. The edge enhancement, moiré, and mosquito noise present at times competed with the admittedly intermittent soft focus the show could display but this version was always better looking than the network presentation on broadcast TV. There were moments of action including chases, gun battles, and all the associated fights expected of a cop show too, the camera keeping fluid when needed but generally following the usual style of edited shots seen on most shows of the genre.
Sound: The primary audio track was the 5.1 Dolby Digital English offering using a 448 Kbps aural bitrate and the standard 48 kHz sampling rate, with optional English SDH subtitles. There wasn't a lot of separation between the channels, nor were the rear channels used extensively, the vocals being dominant on the remastered tracks. There were some changes made on the musical selections (they were discussed in the commentaries, even pointing out how some of the newer choices were superior) and while I prefer complete shows with all the original elements intact, at least Universal has been up front about it unlike so many other companies. As far as how the changes altered the quality of the show, I found watching all the episodes at the same time (in two sittings) to offset any minor troubles with the music, none of the altered selections rising to the level of wildly different or inappropriate even if not the same. In terms of the aural elements combining to support the visual elements of the show on DVD, I found no other problems worth noting.
Extras: Bare bone TV on DVD sets abound these days, generally to keep costs low and over rights' issues that complicate their release but Life had some solid little extras that fans like myself should appreciate. The first disc had some deleted scenes from Let Her Go but the main extra was an audio commentary on Merit Badge by Rand Ravich (creator/producer/writer), Executive Producers Far Shariat & Dan Sackheim, as well as lead actors Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi. I found the mix to be engaging with lots of fun comments, anecdotes about the show and specific episode, and it made me want to watch the episode again to see some of the things they were talking about. There were also some trailers at the beginning including one for Heroes. The second disc had the majority of separate extras with a number of short deleted scenes, a miniscule blooper reel, 3 photogalleries, a short on Charlie's obsession with fruits, and a bunch of series questions answered through clips and interviews, but the best was a Behind the Scenes look at the show called Life Begins. Some of you may also enjoy the multi-angled scene that was deleted but broken down on the disc in four different versions (as it aired in Merit Badge, the original version, and two versions with and without edits of those versions). The third disc offered four separate commentaries, a bonus considering the fold out package listed only one and the outer slipcase only listed one for the entire set. Ravich and Shariat were joined by Dan Sackheim (the director) on Farthingale, they were then joined by Adam Arkin on Serious Control Issues (where Adam showed how much life he can breathe into such a commentary by the way), they were then joined by Sackheim as well as Lewis & Shahi on Dig A Hole, and Sackheim joined Lewis and Shahi on Fill It Up. I know I have heard a lot of lame commentaries in recent years as a reviewer but I found these to be worth checking out as they provide more insights about the series, the episodes, and the decisions that arose due to the writer strike, network requirements, and even the now-infamous music changes. I hope future releases include more of the cast in such offerings if they are going to be as good as some of these were.
Final Thoughts: Life amounted to the surprise hit of the season for me, due to excellent casting, great writing, and just the right touches to transcend the usual cop show elements into something appealing on multiple levels. There were times when I would have preferred a plot go a different direction or a scenario struck me as too far outside the norm to work but especially as a set on DVD that fans can enjoy without interruption by commercials and watch in order as they were intended, I cannot stress how much better it worked than when it aired. The change in music will offend some but if season two increases the technical qualities and gets the rights to the original tracks for the next boxed set, I think a lot of people will overlook the issue this time (pragmatically speaking, I'm more interested in the stories and how the characters interact than minor music changes). Hopefully, it will explore the characters in greater depth as Charlie continues to track down the rest of those involved in the conspiracy, several promising leads established in this set for the crew to work with.