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Wronged man on a mission gives 'Life' spark

Damian Lewis (with Sarah Shahi) plays a cop out to avenge his setup. Damian Lewis (with Sarah Shahi) plays a cop out to avenge his setup. (Trae Patton/NBC)

British actor Damian Lewis is a natural lead as an oddball American in NBC's "Life," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7. He plays Charlie Crews, a cop who spent 12 years in jail for murder before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Now back on the force, extremely wealthy from a settlement, Charlie is altogether loopy.

Lewis turns Crews into an amusing figure - almost as comic as Tony Shalhoub's Monk, as he pronounces Zen platitudes to no one in particular and constantly munches on fruit. In between bites of an apple, he blithely admits to anyone who'll listen that he hates cops. And he is helpless when it comes to all the technological advances that occurred while he was in jail.

But throughout all the silly quips and nonsensical exclamations, Lewis makes it subtly clear that Charlie's daffiness sits on top of a gusher of emotion. The guy spent more than a decade in prison among inmates who don't exactly take kindly to cops; we can tell that his lightheartedness is but a thin veneer. And when he's interrogating suspects, his fury clearly rears its head. Is Charlie about to go off the deep end? Lewis, with his red hair, pale face, and nonchalant expression, is compelling as he toys with Charlie's balance.

The actor, who uses a flawless American accent, makes "Life" worth a gander. And he is surrounded by a distinctive cast. Sarah Shahi, from "The L Word" and the "Sopranos" episode in which Tony ate magic mushrooms, is likable as Charlie's untrusting new partner. Robin Weigart, who was Calamity Jane on "Deadwood," exudes a strong but ambiguous presence as the lieutenant. And Adam Arkin is sweet as Charlie's former cellmate who now lives above the garage at Charlie's mansion.

And, on top of it all, the "Life" back story, which appears to involve the people who set up Charlie for the murder charge in 1994, is promising. While each episode will focus on a particular criminal case and its resolution, like most TV procedurals, the larger mystery about Charlie will unfold gradually. After one episode, I was already curious about what landed Charlie in jail. The premiere is presented partly as a documentary about Charlie, on the occasion of his release from jail, and clearly some of those featured in the reel were responsible for his incarceration.

So why do I fear that, despite all its pluses, this show is not long for the world? For one thing, as good as Lewis is, Charlie may be too strange for mainstream consumption. He's a hard character to understand, although I am certain that, ultimately, he is understandable.

And then with the TV lineups so dense with cop shows, "Life" may not have a flashy enough gimmick to attract viewers in the first place. Somehow, a show known as "the Damian Lewis vehicle" or "the kooky cop's show" does not exactly call out for an audience. Up against "CSI: NY" and "Dirty Sexy Money," the lifespan of "Life" will likely be short.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of actress Robin Weigert is misspelled in the review of the NBC series "Life" in today's Living/Arts section, which was printed in advance. Also, because of an editing error, Damian Lewis is mischaracterized as a comedian in an item in the section. He is a dramatic actor.)

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Starring: Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Adam Arkin, Brooke Langton

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 10-11