Sunday, November 2, 2008

TV Review: The two best shows not enough people are watching

Thankfully, the writers' strike last year didn't kill off two of the best new shows to come out of the 2007 TV season – "Chuck" and "Life". It came close but both were renewed, much to my delight. Of course, not a lot of people are watching them so there's no telling how long they'll last but until someone at NBC pulls the plug (please don't!), they've become must see TV for me.

No, this isn't going to be a rant about how if you don't watch these shows, you're a fool and contributing to the downfall of civilization. I seem to recall some of those from people I know who watched "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and swore they were the greatest TV shows ever. That may be the case - I haven't watched enough of either of them to pass judgment but I am one of those people who, when told I absolutely have to read a specific book or watch a specific show because it's soooo good, will dig my heels in and not do it, just to avoid being one of the herd. Maybe that's a lingering aftereffect of being told that I absolutely must read "The Prince of Tides" many years ago and when I finally broke down and did, I hated it. Oh well.

So anyhow, this isn't going to be one of those rants. It's merely a suggestion that if you want to watch some well acted and entertaining TV, you could do far worse than "Chuck" and "Life."


So here's what it's about – The CIA and NSA intelligence databases, known as the Intersect, are downloaded into the head of Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), Stanford dropout and leader of the Nerd Herd at a southern California "Buy More" electronics store into his head by mistake while the computer containing the real Intersect is destroyed, leaving Chuck the sole respository for this key information. As a result, he becomes an unwilling secret agent with a gorgeous CIA agent (Yvonne Stahovski) posing as his girlfriend and an NSA agent (Adam Baldwin...not one of the Baldwin clan but the talented other Baldwin who also starred in Firefly and Serenity) as a fellow Buy More employee while keeping his activities secret from best friend Morgan, sister Ellie, and her fiancee, Captain Awesome.

Of course it's an outrageous premise (the CIA and NSA working together? Nah, never happen...) but the casting is great, the balance between saving the world and surviving life at the Buy More is really well done with just enough of an absurdist touch, and the writing is crisp and very funny. The homage to "Grosse Point Blank" a few weeks ago in "Chuck vs. the Cougars" was brilliant. Plus there is plenty of trendy gizmo commentary ("Morgan, do we have any Rush CDs in the store?" No, but don't worry, dude. I've got them all on my Zune." "You have a Zune?!" "Are you kidding me? I'll get my iPod.").

The pop culture riffs are also often aimed right at my "I was a young geek" phase (not to be confused with my current "I'm a late 30s geek" phase). A perfect example -- "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" in which Atari's Missile Command console game that we all played in the 80s has the code to stop an actual missile strike from a secret satellite but the only way to reach the legendary "kill screen" to play the game with Rush's "Tom Sawyer" providing the appropriate tempo for the necessary moves and score enough points). All in all, it's tremendous fun.


"Life" is a bit darker - longtime LAPD officer Charlie Crews (the stellar Damian Lewis of "Band of Brothers") is convicted of murdering his best friend and his friend's wife and sent to prison for life. 12 years later, his conviction is overturned, he wins a $50 million settlement from the City of Los Angeles, and returns to life as a homicide detective. Partnered with recovering alcoholic Dani Reese (former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and "L Word" supporting cast member Sarah Shahi) whose ex-cop father may or may not have been involved in a bank robbery and framing Charlie, Crews deals with the murder of the week stories while pursuing his friends' actual murderer (wrapped up last season) and now the people in the larger conspiracy (this season's arc) with the aid of friend and former cellmate Ted Early (Adam Arkin).

Certainly, the mysteries of the week are entertaining, not to mention creative (cancer researcher with lung problems is killed when his oxygen tank is swapped for a tank of liquid nitrogen). But the real thrill of watching this show is Damian Lewis and his take on Charlie Crews, a man who now takes a Zen approach to life as a means of controlling the rage he feels over the death of his friend and the 12 years stolen away from him. His passion for fresh fruit (a scarce commodity in prison), his curiosity about new technology (trying to figure out how a motion-activated water faucet works), his continuing love for his now remarried ex-wife, his dedication to Dani Reese (see the episode, "Powerless" in which she is taken hostage in her own home by a rapist she met in an AA meeting and finally comes to lean on and trust Crews), and his unique leaps in solving cases -- all of these things make Charlie Crews a fascinating character. Hopefully, "Life" will have a long and healthy lifespan on TV. It's absolutely worth it.

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