Tuesday, 24 February 2009

LAW AND ORDER UK: Two separate but equally important shows...

It only occurred to me when Law & Order UK hit its first courtroom scenes that the script, far from being extraordinarily close in content to the original US series, was actually an adaptation of an episode from one of the early years. A little research then revealed that producer/scripter Chris Chibnall had actually chosen 13 of the American shows to adapt, after watching some 150. (Wonder if the L&O version of the Sunny von Bulow killing will be one of them?--and if you're wondering what THAT'S all about, see here)

This trans-Atlantic scripting created quite a bind for the British reviewers, one of whom actually opined that the fast pace and slick dialogue was 'not what UK TV is about, I'm afraid.' It must be awful to live one's life in fear, but anyway. Since the actors and the adapter were British, there was the urge to praise, but since this was an American format, the urge to get the boot in was just as strong. A few people mentioned with smugness that it's the first time the format-following has gone in this direction (thinking of everything from All in the Family to The Office) which overlooks the sad truth that where the Yanks buy formats and tinker with them, the Brits simply steal the idea and butcher it, to wit The Bill (Hill Street Blues), Casualty (ER), or This Life ('this ISN'T the British Friends', Amy Perkins told every interviewer, as if that made it so!). And in fact, a much earlier instance of the Brits buying in a format came when the GE College Bowl format was purchased by the BBC and turned into University Challenge (and you can find my take on yesterday's final, and the Gail Kimble controversy, here, where I ask if University Challenge is fixed). But back to Law and Order UK.

The finished product is actually a blend of L&O and the kind of pacing which Kudos, the British production company, first showed in Spooks (you can read about its most recent series here), and it works pretty well. But the punch of L&O comes from the legal dilemmas, not the pacy cop show; and those dilemmas are often related to police procedure: the ultimate question of whether the law can be enforced and whether, if it is, it constitutes justice. The interesting thing is that ITV, in its advertising, has made the usual mistake of equating the two halves of the show with its title, but the title is actually backwards, since it's the police who maintain order, while the lawyers play with the law. Order and Law doesn't really flow, though.

And if you keep that in mind, you'll soon see there is plenty of domestic material to make original screenplays from, but in fairness Chibnall chose his first show well, because the question of tenant-removal for urban upgrade should be a hot topic here in the wake of the new Eurostar and the upcoming Olympics. And the personal drama, in our present economic circumstances, seemed even more relevant. There was an over-reliance on using regional accents to set characters, but the dialogue never seemed forcing itself to maintain pace.

It probably works better if you don't know the original show, because if you do, you can see the original role models for the characters, remembering that one of the beauties of the US series is the way it has been able to keep going with cast turnover. The hardest job is Bradley Walsh's, trying to be Lenny Briscoe when Jerry Orbach is the toughest act to follow. George Dzundza's Max Greevy was the original older partner, and is probably closer to what Walsh ought to be; Orbach's brand of New York humour has been translated pretty well to Walsh's London, but I wonder if the character's backstory will be as convincing. Jamie Bamber is in the beefcake role as Chris Noth's Mike Logan, and can only hope a part in something like Mistresses (NOT the British Sex And The City, by the way!) lies at the end of this rainbow. He could aspire to Benjamin Bratt, who wound up sharing a motel room with Julia Roberts, but can we conceive of the British equivalent of that? The excellent Harriet Walter underplayed the role S Epatha Mackerson took over from Dann Florek, as if remembering that any woman playing a DI in charge has to channel her inner Helen Mirren.

But it's pretty obvious that the influence of Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy informs Ben Daniels' playing of James Steel with thin-burning moral indignation. Bill Patterson is excellent in the Stephen Hill role, getting a chance to play gruff, and hopefully he will continue with Hill's interpretation of the DA's political tightrope, as walked by the CPS, rather than veer off into Fred 'Mr President' Thompson or Dianne 'Where's Woody?' Wiest territory. Interestingly, in the current L&O stateside, McCoy is now the DA, though I haven't seen any of his episodes. Patterson and Hill are a good comparison as actors, and the role is perfect for Patterson. What we miss, in the British system, is the chance for bit parts for tired and world-weary judges who get to crack wise at the arraignments. In Britain, tired judges merely fall asleep.

The thankless role belongs to Freema Agyeman, who doesn't appear of have any of the many female assistant DAs who played second-fiddle to McCoy and Michael Moriarty's Ben Stone over the years (though in fairness the original, Richard Brooks, was male). Jill Hennessy was probably the best, though Carrie Lowell and Elizabeth Rohm both played off Waterston's stentorian character well. No one will ever look less like a DA than Angie Harmon, though, not even Agyeman, who, as Alesha Phillips (no relation to Trevor, probably) functions primarily to rush into the office with information she's gleaned from a file she should have read before the trial started, but decided to wait for better dramatic effect. Given that she made her name playing second-fiddle to Dr Who, this should be easy.

What we can also hope is that the show builds up a small roster of defense attorneys, which was one of the real strengths of L&O, everyone from Philip Bosco to Ron Silver to Elaine Stritch to Tovah Feldshuh to Lorraine Toussaint's Shambala Green (whose hairdo Agyeman is trying to reprise in the photo left) played against Moriarty and Waterston, and were fine doing it. Patrick Malahide (great name--it would do for the character he played better than for him!) was a perfect foil for Steel: they might have even gone to the same school, but Steel has certainly not followed the career path to success. I wonder too if they'll find an equivalent for Carolyn McCormack's Dr Olivet; I'd bring her over to London explaining she'd come to work at the Tavistock Clinic and wound up working with the CPS.

Kudos and Dick Wolf probably have, though it was worrying that the show lost viewers during its hour, especially if it was losing them to an investigation of Zoe Wanamaker's family tree, fascinating though I'm sure that is. I assume they are working on the idea of using the quality of the show's writing to build a solid base, before becoming more immediate and relevant if there is a second series. One of the joys of the American series is that they could draw on the stable of talented actors not based in LA, the ones doing commercials, theatre, and TV in the city. London, of course, should provide plenty of similar talent. Right not, I'd hope they get there.

No comments :