Last Night's Television: LIFE, ITV3
Russell Brand's Ponderland, Channel 4
This La-La land lawman offers no instant karma
Friday 31 October 2008
Life goes in the file marked "Old Etonians, Progressive domination of world by", with a cross-reference to "Idiosyncrasies of television detectives, Increasing obscurity of". The Old Etonian in the case is Damian Lewis, who plays a Los Angeles policeman called Charlie Crews. The background is sketched out in an opening montage, which features talking heads explaining how Crews spent 12 years in prison for – you can join in the chorus – a crime he did not commit. We see him getting kicked nine ways to Sunday by his fellow inmates, who naturally can't stand a copper, and then poring over a book with a cover on which the word "Zen" features in large, bright letters. Now, Crews is out, he's rich (thanks to a court settlement), he's back on the force(also part of the settlement), he's determined to find out who framed him (naturally), and he's a Buddhist.
Let's pause here to take stock: a Buddhist policeman? I suppose there are worse ways to go. For example, what if, while inside, he came across Immanuel Kant instead, and now he's a maverick cop who'll act only on that maxim whereby he can at the same time will that it should become a universal law? I can imagine his lieutenant throwing a copy of Critique of Practical Reason across the room and snarling, "Somebody find me a goddamn Benthamite utilitarian." On my personal list of dramatically fruitful philosophical systems for a fictional detective to follow, though, Buddhism would still come pretty low. Aren't Buddhists all about avoiding conflict and eschewing revenge?
As it turns out, the avoidance of conflict is the point. Crews is, it's hinted, positively effervescent with rage and a sense of thwarted justice, and Buddhism is the cork that's enabling him to keep it all in. His search for vengeance is, we gather, going to be a long, steady trawl. But that isn't all Buddhism does: it also enables him to be incredibly annoying. In the first episode in last night's double bill, Crews and his new partner, Dani Reese (played by Sarah Shahi), were visiting a convict. The prison guards, recognising Crews and remembering something horrible he did to another guard while inside, started needling him. "You an angry convict?" one of them asked. "Anger ruins joy," Crews told him. "Steals the goodness of my mind. Forces my mouth to say terrible things. Overcoming anger brings peace of mind. Leads to a mind without regrets. If I overcome anger, I will be delightful and loved by everyone." "Are you making fun of us?" "It is the universe that makes fun of us all." This is almost unforgivable, but redeemed by the punchline, which has Reese asking him why the universe makes fun of us: "Maybe it's insecure," Crews said.
This is more or less how the whole thing goes, weaving between outright pretentiousness and a sly suggestion that the writers, and Lewis, who spends a lot of time smiling secretively, are having a bit of fun. The ambiguity is visible in Crews's lifestyle, ascetic yet opulent: he lives in a mansion but (as the beautiful women who pass through his bedroom with the frequency of buses all remark) without furniture; he drives an expensive car but constantly mutters to himself, "I am not attached to this car." But I'm very much afraid we are supposed to swallow whole Dani Reese, who has the standard maverick detective's background – drink and drugs, spiky relationship with superiors – coupled with a quite absurd degree of sexiness (and it's depressingly obvious, from her very first spiky exchange with Crews that they're going to develop a grudging respect for each other, quite possibly coupled with sexual tension).
I enjoyed it, even in a patience-straining double bill. But it's frustrating to see an actor as good as Lewis getting mixed up in such patent tosh. His performance in Band of Brothers, the Spielberg-produced Second World War drama, was a masterpiece of understated authenticity. Here, he has something of the same reserve, but overlaid with a distracting collection of mannerisms. His performance strikes me as owing too much to Hugh Laurie's annoying-smart-arse act in House. Or maybe it's something they both picked up at Eton.
The BBC has suspended all Russell Brand-related activities for the foreseeable, and assuming your hunger for Brand hasn't been entirely assuaged lately,the sole remaining source is Russell Brand's Ponderland, in which his customary rants are structured around random snippets of old news footage on a weekly theme, which, last night, was pets. I'd call myself an admirer of Brand, if at times a reluctant one, but I don't think this format suits him. Either the stories are too bland for his outrage (an elderly aristocrat who dyes his pigeons primary colours) or the outrage is ready-made (an American woman who had had an affair with her dog and was now eyeing up her pony). Interesting to note in the closing credits, though, that the production company that makes it is called Vanity, and its logo is a cartoon of a naked man standing over a mirror and playing with his willy. What you see is what you get.
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