Life

Season one on DVD and Hulu. Season two debuts Monday, September 29, on NBC.

The concept of Life is darkly high-concept (a cop framed for murder and exonerated and freed after twelve years rejoins the police force, despite the fact that he won a huge financial settlement against the city), but it rarely feels as pat and over-constructed as its premise suggests. Similarly, a rough sketch of the cop (he loves fruit! he’s into Zen! he speaks in a weird, elliptical manner that drives his partner crazy!) belies the complexity of the character and the way those oh-so-quirky details begin to feel organic rather than contrived.

So what looks like an unpromising drama—yet another cop show trying way too hard to separate itself from the pack—somehow coalesces into something genuinely compelling, at times even moving. I’m not sure who to credit—creator Rand Ravich for doing far more with his hook than I would guessed or actors Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi for making everything come alive in prickly but spirited fashion—but in its strike-abbreviated first season, Life captured my attention. It has real potential, which makes its coming banishment to the wasteland of Friday nights a real shame. (Not that I ever watch TV shows when they actually air, but still.)

Lewis plays Detective Charlie Crews, the wrongly incarcerated cop, with a winsome veneer of nonchalance over a deeply angry core. Crews deflects the suspicions and defensiveness of his fellow officers with Zen sayings he picked up as an inmate, though when pressed, he cheerfully admits that he’s only “Zen-ish.” Teachings on finding inner peace and rejecting vengeance helped him cope with the anguish of imprisonment, but now that he’s on the outside—and perhaps able to avenge the wrongs done to him—holding to those teachings grows more difficult.

With his hidden agendas and closely guarded secrets, Crews is a fascinating character: complicated and enigmatic but never pointlessly opaque in that lazy, hazy TV way. I would have expected the show’s energy to extend solely from him (and it probably could have), but Crews’s partner, Detective Dani Reese (Shahi), is nearly as interesting herself. She, too, has a painful backstory and a tense, wary personality to match. Shahi actually pulls off the rare trick of making her ridiculously beautiful character believable as a cop: Reese is smart and self-reliant and unwilling to take shit from anyone.

In her own way, Reese is just as damaged as Crews, and thus far, at least, their mutual standoffishness has allowed Life to avoid the unresolved-sexual-tension game that crops up too often in these kinds of shows. It’s a strain for the pair to achieve even a modest working relationship—romance is worlds away—and the effort to forge a real partnership is surprisingly dramatic.

The mysteries (there have to be mysteries) tend to play off the show’s themes, exploring different types of secrets, different kinds of imprisonment (physical, intellectual, spiritual), and different ways the past can haunt us. The solutions are satisfying, and, more important, the investigations are intriguing. And as for Crews’s overarching investigation into who really committed the murders and who framed him and why, Ravich has stretched it out admirably well. The first season seems to have answered the first question, but that answer raised questions of its own. The mythology of the show has to be finite—there’s always the danger of stretching the conspiracy to silly, implausible lengths—but so far, Ravich has handled it with sure-footed confidence.

But I what I enjoy most about Life is not the uncovering of its mythology but the way it truly lives its premise, thoughtfully considering how what happened to Crews would affect him and those around him. Shows of this genre often don’t take seriously the presumption of innocence or the legacy of loss, and it’s refreshing to see one that does, not in a dour way but with a vibrant point of view.

The title is pretentious as hell, but it’s not inappropriate. It touches back to Crews’s lawyer’s epigrammatic line from the pilot: “Life was his sentence and life is what he got back.” Ravich and company seem committed to aiming for that grand summation, and that ambition makes Life worth watching. (Plus, the fruit gimmick really is kind of cute.)