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Monday, 22 October 2007

What's Entertainment?

I have to admit that, for entirely positive reasons, I was hoping that NBC's new zen cop show Life would tank and that its leading man, redheaded Brit Damian Lewis, would have to come home to the UK.

Well, I call them positive reasons. But only if you're prepared to view it in a selfish, world-revolves-around-me, dreams-and-schemes sense that takes no account of others' needs and pays scant attention to reality.

I was pitching a TV project that I thought he'd have been perfect for, and I was hoping he'd be available if it were to be picked up. That's all. In the event, the tiny handful of of UK people with greenlighting power all passed on the project and, in the meantime, I'm warming to Life. The pilot was a bit shaky and the zen stuff was off-putting, which is bad news for something that's supposed to be the show's Unique Selling Point; but that's receding now (the main character ain't half as zen as he wants others to think he is) and the show's beginning to find its balance.

(For those who haven't had access to the series in any form yet, Charlie Crews is a police officer convicted of murder and now exonerated by advances in DNA evidence analysis after more than a decade in prison. The whole zen thing was his way of getting through the daily beatings from other prisoners, for whom finding a cop in their midst was almost as big a treat as getting a pre-op transsexual for a cellmate. His settlement involved a whopping package of cash and reinstatement on the force which, frankly, would rather not have him but has little choice in the matter. Charlie applies his annoying philosophy to policework, and the prospect of another twenty-odd episodes of this threatens to sink the show right away; but thankfully there's more to it, and the More To It is what makes it work.)

Lewis shoulders the duties of a series leading man as if born to the job. It's no mean feat, but after his performance at the centre of Lodge Kerrigan's Keane I'm prepared to believe that he's capable of anything. See it, he's awesome. The film is essentially a tight three-hander (with Amy Ryan and Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) and has the feel of some of the best American cinema of the 70s; while William Keane is haunting the Port Authority bus terminal and obsessing about a missing daughter who may or may not exist, I can easily believe that Joe Buck is retrieving his suitcase from a Greyhound just out of frame.

Wherever you look in American TV at the moment you'll find British actors playing native and looking entirely at home doing it. Better than just fitting in, they bring something that's just different enough to add spice and interest without them seeming out of place. Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson both walked out of Rome and into series leads (with Ray pausing on the way for just long enough to shoot my two-parter Life Line, which was a great piece of luck for me). There's Lena Headey in the upcoming Sarah Connor Chronicles, Michelle Ryan in Bionic Woman, Anna Friel in Pushing Daisies. Not to mention Louise Lombard in CSI, half the cast of The Wire, Jamie Bamber in Battlestar Galactica, and of course Hugh Laurie in House.

Keep on adding to the list, and it ceases to look like a handful of great opportunities for a few actors and begins to resemble a massive drain of talent from the UK.

But who's going to blame them? Laurie's last offer from British TV was to play Watson to Stephen Fry's Sherlock Holmes, casting that was instantly seen by press and public as a further addition to his gallery of comedy dimwits. His turn in House makes him the equivalent of a kid who has to change schools before he can shine.

Brits in America are picking up the kind of roles that don't exist at home. Flawed heroes. Complex villains. Mythic everyman figures in classically-structured story forms. American TV has its weaknesses but a failure to grasp the essentials of showbusiness isn't one of them. They make watching a lot of our homespun stuff feel like school homework.

Go to the circus, laugh at the clowns, and then go home and have nightmares about them.

That's entertainment.

UPDATE:

I re-watched the pilot last night (because I was in company that hadn't seen it, not because I was being obsessive or over-analytical), and it plays significantly better when you've a good idea of where it's all going.

The first time around I'd approached it with wariness because, from a distance, it looked like a mere cop-with-a-quirk procedural. Whereas with Crews walking openly amongst his enemies it's actually a Count of Monte Cristo variant of the kind I wrote about in this earlier post.

I think I'd have liked to have known that up-front on my first viewing; it would have taken me a lot less time to be won over.

7 comments:

Good Dog said...

Have to say, I'm loving Life. The fact that he's eating fruit whenever he can is great.

Having watched Deadwood, I'm amazed to see that Robin Weigert - who plays the lieutenant - is really tall.

Stephen Gallagher said...

You know there's an entire website devoted to the heights of famous people? www.celebheights.com. Weigert isn't on there but Lewis is, so you can compare and calculate.

Good Dog said...

That just confused me more. Still, it was an excuse to watch a couple episodes of Deadwood again.

The only think I could figure was, as Calamity Jane, Ms Weigert was always scrunching herself up in a half-stoop around the other actors.

Lucy said...

Damian Lewis really creeps me out. He looks like the type of man who eats babies for snacks in-between shoots. And I love red-headed men. I have a thing for Horatio Caine big style (Horatio, not David Caruso you understand).

Stephen Gallagher said...

Did I ever mention that I write under a pseudonym?

My actual name is "Ginger McHunky".

David said...

Life is one of the current crop I'm really getting into. The pilot was ok(ish) but nothing special, however, the last scene where the full back story emerges hooked me.

My concern is that, like Veronica Mars, they'll have a 1 season hook that just won't translate into the 7 year run that the studios are looking for.

Other top picks from the season:
30 Rock
Reaper
Chuck

Boston Legal has jumped the shark, Journeyman is not that interesting, the remake of Flash Gordon is dire, Bionic Woman is ok(ish) but nothing exciting.

Stephen Gallagher said...

It's suffering from poor ratings, apparently. This may not be unrelated to the fact that it screens right after Bionic Woman, which seems to be dying on its arse. They probably hoped that BW would pull in the numbers and Life would benefit. But the opposite seems to be happening.

It would be a real shame if the WGA strike were used as an excuse to kill the show. It's definitely my favourite of the bunch.