Television is rarely original. From All in the Family to American Idol, U.S. TV has revised and recast British hits. British viewers tend to embrace U.S. franchises in their original formats: Kojak, and Hill Street Blues were as famous in the U.K. as they were for home audiences. Now, in a more complicated variation on this mutual admiration, BBC America is bringing back to stateside audiences the English version of U.S. television’s longest-running crime drama, Law & Order. A 20-year-old American show, reworked for British audiences, re-imported to the U.S. One can’t help thinking, “What’s the point?”
Well, the accents are different. A mix of regional Englishes is set off by an acerbic Scots brogue from Bill Patterson as George Castle, Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, and the public school vowels of Patrick Steel (Ben Daniels), Senior Crown Prosecutor. And the lawyers do wear archaic white wigs and flowing black gowns to appear in court. But the quaint factor has its limits. First, the scripts are based directly on Law & Order episodes, no small hazard when playing back to the U.S., where the originals have been in pervasive reruns for over a decade.
Second, English courts, despite the 18th-century accessories, are much less dramatic than their American counterparts, with barristers engaged in far less pacing, prowling, and grandstanding. And the on-location shooting, while welcome, offers glimpses of, rather then immersion in, its well-chosen London milieus. And so, the British series looks to other strengths of its source, namely, incisive production and writing, access to first-rate actors (because it is filmed in London, after all, theatre-central for the U.K.), and its focus on topical legal conundrums.
In the hands of Chris Chibnall, previously a writer for Life on Mars and Torchwood, the first episodes of L&O: UK define the players quickly and never linger too long on a scene. Indeed, in places the speed of the repartee, combined with the variety of accents, might challenge American viewers. In the mouths of Bradley Walsh, as DS Ronnie Brooks, and Jamie Bamber, as his ambitious, less experienced partner, DS Matt Devlin, the dialogue establishes both the comfort and the tensions of a long-haul professional partnership from the get-go.
Their boss, Detective Inspector Natalie Chandler (Harriet Walter), is an intriguing counterpart for Castle. If the supervisors’ roles are underwritten, the actors bring low-key energy and wisdom, as in the original New York series. The series’ fidelity to the parameters of the franchise is particularly frustrating in the case of Walters. She has turned in dozens of stellar stage performances, but seems to be facing the same paucity of demanding TV roles that Helen Mirren encountered prior to Prime Suspect and which has propelled Saskia Reeves into a similar role in Luther (also premiering on BBCA this month). The female cop boss seems contemporary TV’s stealth attempt to assert women’s essential maternity: via tough love, she lambasts, encourages, dresses down, and soothes the unruly boys on her team. And then she vanishes from the screen while the men get on with the real work.
On the other hand, Daniels inherits the meatiest role in the show, that of lead prosecutor, and adds a believable human compassion to the righteous indignation that drove Sam Waterson’s Jack McCoy. When he tries to persuade a 13-year-old who has confessed to murder to take the card of a therapist who might help him, Daniels’ quiet persistence and the physical awkwardness of his attempt to console the boy with an arm around the shoulders conjures a man horrified by the success of his own determined prosecution. In a very tight close-up, he demonstrates both the TV actor’s awareness of facial expression and the stage actor’s expressive gesturing. Of all the characters in this British import, Steel develops most from the stateside original.
One major reason why he does so lies in the U.K. writers’ chance to cherry-pick the most complex episodes from the original’s then 18-year archive (at the time production began in 2008). On the evidence of the first series, they have chosen stories with maximum legal ambiguity and still immediate topicality. Episode One zeroes in on the casualties of inner-city gentrification, where murder is obvious but the culprit almost impossible to prosecute under current English law, while Episode Two charts exactly how far the science of genetic marking has outstripped both law and morality.
Here defense attorney Beatrice McCardle (Dervla Kirwan) conjures the perfect defense for her middle-school client accused of murder, his possession of a gene associated with criminal violence that leaves him unable to control his actions. To her guilty client, however, this defense is condemnation worse than death, for it robs him of any hope of redemption. As with the original iteration of the story, the viewer suddenly understands how the intellectual challenge of successful prosecution or defense blinds attorneys to the human cost of their victories. The law appears in its true colors: a game played by those for whom the consequences of life and death take place at one remove.
The trouble is, to anyone who’s watched the glory days of Law & Order, the temptation to see in Steel’s anguished liberalism another version of Jack McCoy’s agonizing over the clash between his radical past and his obligations to the law is almost overwhelming. So, too, is the instinct to rerun every wry exchange between Walsh and Bamber in the voices of Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth. To viewers new to the franchise, L&O: UK might prove a fine introduction. For dedicated watchers of the original, it might function as a kind of recap of the “best of” episodes from the series’ entire life. But for the truly addicted, it will always be a paler, politer, well-bred echo of the Real Thing, better left on the side of the Atlantic where it originated.