Sunday, November 18, 2007

TV: I want my ... I want my Zen TV (or not)

What is life?
Did you read about it in a magazine?
-- Laura Nyro, "To A Child"

The people behind Life obviously did and the magazine was TV Guide. When all new ideas have been exhausted (at least to them), 'creators' start splicing which is how the program that closes out NBC's Monday primetime line up came to be. Before we get to the DNA structure, some basics.

Life revolves around Charlie Crews who is played by Damian Lewis because, if you're trying to be different, the obvious move is to cast a White male lead, right? Well, in someone's mind that is different. We'd agree it's different . . . different from reality. He's a police detective and his partner is Dani Reese played by Sarah Shahi. The casting of the two roles tells you TV is still not able to cover race or nationality realistically. On the latter the American Charlie is played by a Brit. On the former, Sarah Shahi is Iranian-American and we're more than a little tired of the former Miss Fort Worth grabbing up roles that should be going to Latina actresses. Yeah, Dustin Hoffman played a man playing a woman in Tootsie. But we were in on it. At a time when finding authentic Latinas on TV, at a time when The George Lopez Show -- the only network show to offer them regularly and recognizable -- is off the air, exactly why is Shahi grabbing her second role as a Latina? (She previously played Mexican-American in The L-Word.)

We're not trying to do a disservice to American actors. We're aware you can't go into any LA fitness club without bumping into several. We have no idea why the networks this year have a urge to hire Brits to play Americans. But we also know that there are plenty of White Anglo-American males already featured all over the broadcast spectrum. The same cannot be said of Latinas (or, for that matter, Latinos). So we find it really insulting that Dani Reese, who has a Cuban actor (Victor Rivers) playing her father, is cast in a role that didn't go to a Latina. It's as insane as Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl.

Shahi speaks a little Spanish, that really doesn't qualify her to play a Latina. When we made this point to a friend with the show, he countered that it demonstrates that "race doesn't really matter." It's interesting how that point is always allegedly made these days by denying roles and, in this case, a role written as Latina was denied to a Latina actress. No, Shahi isn't White. But she's not Latina either and the idea that her being another ethnicity means she can play any ethnicity strikes us as as insulting. We also doubt that she has the ability to do so based both upon what's oncreen as well as the fact that accomplished actress Meryl Streep never needed a beauty title nor was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys.

What "race doesn't really matter" actually says in this instance is: "We just don't care."

Adam Arkin (White) also appears on the program as Charlie's prison buddy Ted who now lives at his mansion. Prison buddy?

Now it's time for the DNA code. Charlie was in prison for years, wrongly convicted of murders, and DNA proved he was innocent. He got a big settlement from the LAPD (it probably helps to be White) and his old job back. Arkin's Ted is a curious character and sometimes comes off like Family Guy's Stewie in that you wonder do other people see him? They do, they just ignore him. That has nothing to do with anything scripted. It does have to do with badly staged scenes. That said, Arkin is probably the only reason to watch the show. While his father Adam has an abundance of edgy intensity, Adam Arkin has a abundance of comfort -- he oozes likeability. The underwritten role could be a nightmare and the dialogue is actually better suited to an Elliott Gould characterization. But when Charlie's already laid-back neurotic, the show really needs Adam Arkin.

Charlie's supposed to have discovered Zen in prison which translates onscreen as eat fruit and babble on like you just emerged from an EST seminar. He is a Chatty Cathy, pulling out all of his inner stuffings and attempting to pass them off as complexity. In that regard, we've got House (which also starts a Brit playing an American). But the writers of Life don't know from dark which is why, despite all the sturm und drang, you feel as though you're seeing the insides of a teddy bear. If you served twelve years in prison for three murders you didn't commit, we'd assume you'd emerge with some deep-seated feelings. Nothing in the dialogue, writing or acting suggests that happened.

Charlie and Dani go about their beat solving really lousy cases that are little more than whimsy. Most recently, they discovered the top half of a dead man only to quickly discover he had two wives. When the two wives met one another and realized they were both married to the same dead man, it was all so sedate, you expected someone to brew up some chamomile tea and drag down an afghan. What is the purpose of creating a bigamist back story and allowing the two women to meet if not to allow conflict emerge? They differed over what he always said about his job ("not not guilty") but did so politely. Not a strained politeness which might have been funny but like two actresses who were told to tone it down so as not to upstage the leads.

By the half-hour mark, everything that needed to be said about the case the detectives were working had already been said. By the time they went to a trailer park and met a man who was helping them out, if you didn't realize instantly he was the killer they were looking for you may be more mentally off balance than Charlie appears to be.

The big moment there was a trip wire. Presumably to explosives but since it ran across the space for a garage door it might have just made the door come down. Suspense was supposed to be Charlie and Dani standing before it after they both knew it was there. Was the suspense supposed to come from some involuntary movement their body might make? If the trip wire went to a bomb, went to anything, shouldn't they have shouted out a warning when a platoon of cops later descended on the scene?

Though in real life the police officers would have fanned out, on this show they just stood around and watched Charlie and Dani -- demonstrating that the writers think there's something watchable here even if viewers don't.

So you've got House meets Pedestrian Cop Drama? We're not done analyzing the DNA.

In addition to all the above, there's also the fact that although Charlie is now innocent, the guilty have never been found. Each week, he seems to get a little closer to who framed him and why. But after last year's 'real time' episodic offerings tanked, it appears that the creators decided to cushion themselves with a weekly non-mystery.

Like the character of Charlie, Life wants to be so much more than it actually is. Instead, it's so much less than interesting. Dani's got a drug addiction she's attempting to recover from and sometimes the writers and actress seem to remember that, while other times they seem to forget it. It's one of those "details" like Dani being Latina that really isn't supposed to matter. At it's most abused, Zen's basic premise can be boiled down to "Life just happens." As NBC demonstrates each Monday night, sometimes it doesn't.
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