by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & Life & r & & r & (Fridays, NBC, 10pm) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hat makes a good cop drama these days? You need a montage of quick-cut crime-solving action, set to some hip, new song you can download on iTunes. You need a strong, likable lead detective, a cranky, wisecracking boss and a hot-yet-tough female partner. You need a good dose of CSI-style soft-core gore -- at the very least a trip to the morgue. And then you need a couple quirky flourishes to set your show off from all the rest of the cop dramas crowding the schedule. NBC seems to have taken this recipe, turned the blender to puree and -- voila! -- we have Life, a show just good enough to live for a second season.
I loved Damian Lewis in HBO's Band of Brothers. He played the heroic Captain Richard Winters with a serene intensity that was perfect to depict the conundrum of a Quaker warrior. And in Life, he's the show -- Charlie Crews, a cop who did 12 years' hard time for a crime he didn't commit. Now he's out, with a $50 million settlement from Los Angeles (quirky flourish No. 1) and a newfound Zen attitude (quirky flourish No. 2). His wife remarried (quirky flourish No. 3), but he did get his job back. After hours, he tries to piece together the conspiracy that framed him for the murder of his best friend's family (quirky flourish No. 4). But Lewis is just too dialed back -- he's not oddball enough to enter Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) territory, and he's not crazy/badass enough to compete with Horatio Caine (David Caruso). He's staked out a confusing middle ground between funny and menacing, and it's not working.
And his supporting cast isn't working either, with a completely extraneous Adam Arkin and Donal Logue, who brings a New York sensibility to L.A. as Crews' boss -- he's the laugh track, but he's not funny.
Which isn't his fault, which takes us back to one cop-show requirement I didn't mention: good writing. People tune in because they like to guess whodunit. After last season, Life apparently lost half its writing staff -- and it shows. The crimes solved in the first two episodes were not even remotely mysterious, and the conspiracy is just confusing. NBC seems to know it has a dead show walking here. After all, it plays at 10 pm on Friday nights, the place where TV shows go to die.
Life on Mars
A cop drama set in New York, circa 1973, starring Harvey Keitel -- what's not to like? Based on the BBC series of the same name, it follows the adventures of a New York cop, circa 2008, who bumps his head and winds up back on the job in the Nixon era -- with some odd similarities to a case he had been investigating. (Thursday, 10/9, 10 pm, ABC)
If you're one of those people who still can't figure out how to vote this fall -- one of those "undecideds" we keep hearing about -- this one's for you. Frontline, perhaps television's best source of journalism, devotes two hours to understanding the truth about John McCain and Barack Obama. (Tuesday, 10/14, 9 pm, KSPS)
Saturday Night Live Weekend Update
It's neither Saturday nor the weekend, but the ratings gold that goes by the name "Sarah Palin" demands that Saturday Night Live Weekend Update move to prime time. For the next three Thursdays, the airwaves will have more fake news than just Jon Stewart's. And don't be surprised if a certain hockey mom makes a live appearance. (Thursdays, 10/9, 10/16 and 10/23, 9:30 pm, NBC)