Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The long arm of the Law & Order franchise

Monday night at nine is becoming uninterruptable telly time for me - what with Unforgiven and Moses Jones, I've been glued to the screen for the last six weeks, and could well be for the coming thirteen.

ITV may have had the knives out in the last couple of months - for Heartbeat, The Royal, Wire in the Blood, Passage to India, but at least they're still trying new things (even if they don't always work, cf Demons and Britannia High).

Their latest attempt, as we wait for the new seasons of Moving Wallpaper, The Fixer and Primeval, is Law and Order UK. Dick Wolf has figured out a novel way of getting another twenty years out of his cops and lawyers tag-team franchise - remake the entire series for a different market. Genius!

Last night's premiere, "Care," was penned by Chris Chibnall, and based on "Cradle to Grave," a second season Law & Order episode from 1992, with added mobile phones.

Admittedly, it's easy to scoff at the notion of remaking a seventeen year old episode of TV; easier still to raise a cynical sneer at the headline grabbing subject matter of a suffocated baby chosen for this opening episode.

With Kudos at the helm however, one has to expect at least a solid hour of television. This was - no more, and no less - an episode of Law & Order, set in London. Whether or not you think that's a good thing depends on your own preferences.

The format is exactly as we've come to expect - for half the episode, the police look for someone to arrest, in the second half the CPS figure out how to prosecute them. It's a classic formula, one which works well in the US and transfers well to the UK, despite differences in our legal systems.

London looks just as I remember it - 'orrible. I can't count the number of times I had to walk to Sadlers Wells from Kings Cross, because the Angel was shut again. It's one of the most depressing routes I've ever paced, and seeing it on the box last night, I was gladder than ever that I never have to do it again. Fortunately, I never stumbled over a corpse in King's Cross; that's the sort of thing you're more likely to find on Kingsway, but recognisable locations always add a spot of verisimilitude to drama.

With the exception of Patrick Malahide's outrageously amoral defence lawyer - a stereotype that surely deserves ten to life, the cast were uniformly strong. I don't know if Malahide's going to be a recurring foil for Ben Daniel's crusading prosecutor, but by Jove, he'll need to dial it down a bit if so.

The show boasts an impressive roster of thespians, to tell the truth: Jamie Bamber (fresh off Battlestar Galactica, and using his own accent again); Bradley Walsh (surprisingly effective in a dramatic role); Harriet Walter; Freema Agyeman; and Bill Patterson, all make a good account of themselves. Whether it's a legacy of the parent show, or Chris Chibnall showing off his chops, each character seems to be drawn with a skill and depth often absent in pilot episodes

The show is perceptibly slower paced than its US forebear, but does have a slightly longer running time. At any rate, it's still got at least three times as much oomph as most UK mystery shows and, along with shows like The Fixer, is another attempt by ITV to move away from the turgid, paint-drying pace of its established crime-solving roster.

The real test of L&O UK is still to come – how will it fare when it stops recycling American scripts, and starts breaking its own stories? The format’s proven, the location’s a goer, and the characters strong enough to carry their own water; I’m pretty hopeful that Law & Order UK will develop it’s own sense of identity and be able to hold its own against the other entries in NBC’s juggernaut franchise.

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