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The Escape Artist

Series Premiere
Director: Brian Welsh
Cast: David Tennant, Toby Kebbell, Sophie Okonedo, Ashley Jensen, Gus Barry
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

(PBS; US: 15 Jun 2014)

Hard to Know For Sure

In their book, Law and Popular Culture,” Michael Asimow and Shannon Madder describe two definitions of justice. The first, substantive justice, delivers to individuals what they are due: “The guilty have been convicted, and appropriately punished: the innocent set free.” Procedural justice, on the other hand, guarantees that all correct procedures are followed, to protect the rights of all involved, for “even when we claim to be certain about what happened, it can still be hard to know for sure what would be a ‘correct’, ‘just’, or a ‘moral’ response.”


This will sound familiar to viewers of TV crime shows: over the last 30 years, fiction shows, along with reality television and news, have bombarded viewers with storylines that either celebrate fidelity to procedure or make clear an individual’s perception of systemic injustice. Increasingly, say, in the past decade, TV shows are suggesting that the law is incapable of delivering justice as any layperson would understand it, and that extra-legal action is the only remedy available to the individual.


The BBC’s The Escape Artist, premiering on PBS on 15 June, offers yet another approach to the dilemma. Specifically, it offers a sophisticated approach. Following junior barrister Will Burton (David Tennant), the show underscores the subtle mechanics of everyday life, in order to show an oscillation between innocence and threat. Toward that end, Tennant reminds us here that he is never typical protagonist material. Skinny, sharp-featured, and just a little bit gangly, Will looks like any unabashed contemporary father and husband, donning the uniform of professional life when needed, but just as happy in a hoodie and jeans.


His capacity for straddling worlds is matched by his wife Kate (Ashley Jensen), whose beauty is the sort glimpsed for a heartbeat on a busy street rather than fixed for public consumption in a glossy glamor shot. (Both actors deliver low-key performances against the series’ equally subdued locations and lighting.) The Burtons might live in a luxurious penthouse apartment, and weekend in a secluded cottage, but they twine LED mini-lights round their son Jamie’s (Gus Barry) bedroom and pin his drawings to the wall. The first social event viewers see in their home is Jamie’s birthday party, a scene that is positively archaic in its focus on the kids’ eating and parents’ talking, and in the total absence of music, spectacle, and catered cuisine. 


Transparent blue-grey light filters over almost every scene featuring Will, as if the piece were shot in available light. (It’s not, of course: each shot is far too crisp, focused, and complex.) The chambers where Will works feature neither mahogany tombs nor plate-glass temples to conspicuous wealth. None of the lawyers indulges in voyeuristic obsession with graphic photographs of mutilated women and tortured bodies, even when they’re trying such crimes. The only false note in the mise-en-scène is the disinclination of any character, including a woman who bathes naked in a moonlit bathroom, to screen any window at night. Such access does rather give away that something nasty is going to appear on the other side of the glass sooner rather than later.


This misstep aside, the series’ careful fidelity to lived experience is critical to our understanding of Will. He may be his chambers’ most promising barrister, but he is flamboyant and ruthless only in the courtroom. Modest among his family and slightly insecure in his social life, so it is a modest mistake that precipitates his descent into hell. For Will is not who he claims to be.


Throughout The Escape Artist‘s early scenes, Will reiterates his commitment to procedural justice, his belief that everyone, however heinous the crime alleged, however guilty he might appear, deserves a defence. At first, nothing in his latest case, the trial of Liam Foyle (Toby Kebell), a disengaged bird fancier accused of the violent murder of a young woman, disturbs that confidence. Through the clever manipulation of a legal technicality, Will secures the dismissal of the jury and Liam’s release, but by then, his exposure to Foyle over the weeks of preparation for the trial have left him not only unsure of his client’s innocence, but also repelled by his affectless bonhomie and gratitude.


When Liam proffers his hand in a congratulatory shake as they leave the courtroom, Will ignores it, pauses, and turns away with a tight smile. Like the heroes of ancient Greek tragedy, he reacts as a human being at precisely the wrong time. His own failure to be the lawyer he claims to be, and enact the principles he espouses, initiates an accelerating spiral of passion, deceit and death.


As viewers, we quickly learn how fast, and how deeply, the ripples from Will’s momentary error will disrupt not simply the closed worlds of his chambers and his tightly knit family, but also his moral compass that dictates equal justice for all. This drama occurs on well-worn televisual territory, and it loads the emotional bases in favor of its protagonist from the get-go with a splurge of melodrama, albeit restrained. But The Escape Artist is unusually willing not to let the audience off the hook, and instead, to help us understand that the pursuit of substantive justice may prove as dangerous as the crimes it seeks to right.

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