As we reported in November, tonight's fourth series (or second season) finale, "Skeletons," marks the departure of original cast members Ben Daniels (as senior prosecutor James Steel) and Bill Paterson (as Steel's boss, George Castle). They will certainly be missed. Before they go, though, it's time to pay tribute to how they helped make LOUK so great.
Four series is a long time in British television. It's longer than most entire shows. Over those twenty-five, soon to be twenty-six, episodes, we've come to know the characters of Law & Order: UK pretty well. I certainly feel like I know them better than I knew most of their American counterparts, even with the longer US seasons. In a fairly short amount of screen time, these two actors - really, the entire LOUK ensemble - created characters that I wanted to invite into my home every Friday evening. These are people I would work with and could see myself being friends with. Two of them leaving is the fictional equivalent of two friends moving away: we're happy for the actors because we know they'll move on to other things, but at the same time, we don't want to lose these great characters.
And they truly are great characters. I've said previously that James Steel has become my favorite Law & Order lawyer, and one of my favorite fictional lawyers, period. While I liked his predecessors for specific qualities, James has all of them. I can see in him Ben Stone's passion and Michael Cutter's deviousness. The result is a character that I can get emotionally invested in because I believe what he's standing for, yet who also entertains me because he's always got some interesting way to stick it to the bad guys. What's more, many times he does it without even raising his voice. You have to love a guy who can strike fear into the hearts of people in the same tone he uses to order at a drive-thru.
He's such a fully developed hero; this is the guy who never quits on a case, an admirable trait that saves the day in some cases and royally screws it up in others, and we see both. He appreciates his victories and struggles with his mistakes. When watching the original Law & Order, there were long periods where it seemed like the good guys always won, and then in later years it seemed like there was always some depressing twist at the end. The predictability got boring. In LOUK we've seen James screw up. We've seen him make decisions that are questionable. Yet we believe in him, because he believes in himself. It's that sense of conviction that grounded the entire series and helped galvanize the fans; confidence is infectious.
Not to mention that James has a bit of a smart mouth on him. And the recipient of most of his wit is his boss, George Castle. Castle is unlike any Law & Order boss before him. He doesn't just sit behind his desk for a scene or two and dispense wisdom. No, we've actually seen him help with cases, and later defend someone in court (against James, no less!), which I don't believe Adam Schiff ever did. And no offense to Steven Hill, whom I enjoyed for years, but Castle's got just a little more bite in his delivery, a little more energy to him. He gives as good as he gets.
Bill Paterson is perfect at that deadpan approach, making more with less. He's created real relationships between Castle and his prosecutors. We were told and accepted that the American L&O lawyers enjoyed long and fairly close relationships with Adam Schiff; here, we can see that type of bond in action. Castle doesn't just turn up to spout off a few lines; you get the sense that he's really part of the office, and part of the process. He knows what's going on around him, and he cares about his team - but he's not afraid to put them in their place. (Or try, anyway. We also know that James doesn't exactly listen to him.) This is a man that I'd love to work for, although I'd probably drive him just as crazy.
I'm definitely excited that Bill Paterson is coming back in a recurring capacity. At the same time, though, I keep thinking George deserves a nice, calm tropical vacation for all the headaches James has given him over the years. Here's to hoping he has just as entertaining a relationship with the new guy.
And that's the sticking point when it comes to losing these two characters: not only are they characters I love, but they're people I'd want to work with, that I would trust on my behalf. In a lot of situations, Steel even reminds me of me, and my career as a would-be prosecutor. He's thought along the same lines and done things that I would have done in his place. That extra element of truth makes all the difference. I never feel like I'm just sitting back passively and watching a TV show. I'm enjoying the story and a lot of the time I feel like I'm a part of it, just because I've been where they are. No offense to the incoming actors, but because the characters won't be the same, I know that I won't get that feeling again.
That's probably the best compliment I can give. These are two amazing actors who brought to life two great characters for a long time, and every week, after I'd watched them work, I'd always reconsider my decision not to become a prosecuting attorney. They made me love the law again. And for that, and for so much else, I thank them.
"Skeletons" airs tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on BBC America.