Reviews

'Law & Order: UK' Series Premiere

Lesley Smith

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?"


Law & Order: UK

Airtime: Sundays, 10:30pm ET
Cast: Bradley Walsh, Jamie Bamber, Harriet Walter, Ben Daniels, Freema Agyeman, Bill Paterson
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: BBCA
Air date: 2010-10-03
Website
Trailer
Amazon

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.

6

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image