Before Making The Next Gritty Crime Drama, There’s One Show That Every Showrunner Should Watch

As you have no doubt noticed, the television landscape is filled to the brim with crime-serial dramas, and while many of them are great (Broadchurch, Luther, Hannibal), they all seem to have something in common: They are dark as hell. AMC’s new series, Low Winter Sun is absolutely no exception, either. It is practically defined by its bleakness. It so wants to be dark, edgy, and grim that it practically suffocates on its own inexorable implacableness. I’ll concede, however, that most of these crime-serial dramas are not bad shows at all. However, there’s only so much glowering and foreboding we can stomach. I have no idea, either, why this trend exists: The Killing seems to have really kicked it into high gear, and that show has never been a big ratings grabber. Still, the networks pile them on, and each one creates more and more serial killer fatigue, and the power of the drama increasingly loses steam.

So before anyone else decides to roll out a new crime-serial drama, I have one request: Watch Life.

The NBC series, which lasted only two seasons between 2007 and 2009, should’ve been a giant hit. That it wasn’t is still a mystery to me (perhaps it was yet another casualty of NBC’s steady decline). Created by Rand Ravich and starring Damien Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Adam Arkin and Donal Logue (what a phenomenal cast, right?), the series came at a point when network television wasn’t quite ready to leave its procedural framework behind. It’s still a problem on the broadcast channels, obviously, but as The Following (and to a lesser extent, the less successful Hannibal, and the even less successful Awake) demonstrate, people are increasingly willing to stick with a cop show with ongoing arcs. The key, of course, is exactly what Life perfected: Mixing procedural elements with an ongoing storyline.

In this case, the series arc concerned Charlie Crews (Lewis), a detective just released from prison after serving 12 years on a life sentence. DNA evidence, however, exonerated him, he rejoined the force with Detective Dani Reese (Shahi), and the two pursued murder investigations. However, unbeknownst to the police department, Crews was also investigating the conspiracy behind the triple murder he for which he was framed, and that’s really the most interesting part of the series, the hook that brought us back week after week.

The way Life combined ongoing storylines with cases of the week was not completely original, of course (no show has probably done that better than The X-Files): What was unique about Life was its tone. It was blithe and jocular, but unlike the USA Network procedurals, there was substance behind it. There was a density to the show that gave it some heft. It wasn’t just pretty people solving crimes (although, Good God, Sarah Shahi!), it had intelligence that was expertly combined with playfulness (another great cop show, in terms of tone, was a series that came right after Life called The Unusuals (with Jeremy Renner) — a quirkier version of Life — but it didn’t even last a season).

These crime procedural dramas often seem to have a troubled partner, as well, whether it be the detective with Asperger’s in The Bridge, Sherlock’s OCD behavior in Sherlock, or the psychologically tormented Will Graham in Hannibal, and it’s there, too, where Life really shined. Lewis’ character, Charlie Crews, wasn’t so much mentally troubled as he was scarred by 12 years in prison, which presented itself in certain idiosyncrasies: He has a fixation with fresh fruit, and he’s obsessed with the philosophy of Zen. It sounds kind of new age-y and dumb on the surface, but Lewis successfully exploited its playful side and used it to show us the contrast between life in and out of prison in lighter, though no less successful way than presented in Ray McKinnon’s masterful Rectify.

It really was the whole package: Entertaining, engrossing, and smart. But it had one specific element that so many of these new crime-serials seems to be missing. For all the great performances, the grisly murders, the high stakes, and the complex plotlines, they’re missing what made the NBC series so great: It was fun.