‘Accused Series 1 and 2’ Is a Good Procedural, Episodically

Fans of quality British television could do much worse than Accused, but only certain episodes, such as the one featuring Sean Bean's stunning role as a transvestite, stand out.

Accused is a BBC drama series built around an interesting premise: each episode begins with the moment at which a prisoner is about to be sentenced for his or her crime. The episode then takes the viewer into the past, passing through the series of events that led the prisoner to this pivotal moment. Far from being a courtroom drama or standard police procedural, Accused uses its framing device as a way to lend urgency to the backstories of the characters involved. In this way, it benefits from the tension of more typical courtroom dramas while simultaneously exploring a variety of criminal and quasi-criminal behavior.

None of the prisoners are exactly innocent, but some are guiltier than others. The show explores the motivations of all these accused in an attempt to question what exactly makes a person culpable and therefore worthy of punishment. In the current atmosphere of high-profile legal cases such as the Ferguson grand jury decision, the potential is here for compelling viewing. And so this is — well, some of it. Alas, too many episodes are weighted down with listless characters and predictable plots, although there are some highlights.

The good news first, then: the performances are universally sound, calling on a range of established British television actors to take turns in the starring role. As this is an episodic, story-of-the-week type serial, there is no continuing cast, so the onus falls on each week’s star to carry the show. The cast prove more than capable of the task, with stars like Andy Serkis (of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) turning in strong performances. Without a doubt, though, the two standout episodes star Sean Bean (Ned Stark from Game of Thrones) and Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from the original BBC production of The Office as well as Orell from Game of Thrones). Both play counter to type, especially Bean, whose brave performance usurps all expectations of yet another tough-guy-with-a-sword role.

In “Frankie’s Story”, Mackenzie Crook plays a truly frightening British army officer, the kind of quiet sociopath who will quietly murder someone and justify it with lines like “Men like him get men like you killed.” When a pair of young recruits fall afoul of his authoritarian command, events quickly spiral from bad to worse. It’s not surprising when men die in war, of course, but the manner of some of the deaths which occur in this episode are unsettling, and the writers get full credit for avoiding the kind of jingoism that plagues too many fictionalized portrayals of the military.

“Tracie’s Story” sees Bean playing a transvestite who gets involved in a love affair with a married man. Not surprisingly, revelations come out which threaten to destabilize both men, and which eventually see Bean’s alter ego taking the stand in court. In “Kenny’s Story”, a man learns that his young daughter has been molested in a nearby park, and immediately seeks out the perpetrator of the deed. With the help of a pair of thuggish friends, he exacts a violent and terrible revenge on the man. Subsequently, something terrible happens, and after this, something even worse happens. As the saying goes: if you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.

There ten episodes in all, with some stories being more compelling than others. There is also a certain sameness that sets in after a time, with careful revelations popping up at regular intervals. The lead characters are overwhelmingly white and male, with a couple of female-centric stories. The latter, sadly, prove to be all too myopic, focusing on common “female ” topics such as concerned mothers, as well as a black woman (Naomi Harris) sneaking in to star in “Alison’s Story” — you know, the one about the jealous lover.

Overall, the series is by no means weak, but it is for the most part competent rather than outstanding. That’s a surprise, given all the talent on deck; it feels like something of missed opportunity. A handful of directors take turns throughout the series, so there is no set visual style, but for the most part the episodes lack much visual pizzazz. The color palette tends toward the dreary — appropriate, considering the unglamourous subject matter — and the show’s emphasis is much more on the storytelling rather than any visual element.

These two episode seasons are contained on a four disc set, with a 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette serving as the full extent of the bonus features. Fans of quality British television could do much worse than this, although with one or two exceptional episodes it is far from the outstanding series that it might have been.

RATING 6 / 10