Law School: Celebrating 'Law & Order: UK'
If I didn't already know that Law & Order: UK is my favorite current crime drama, electing to stay up all night because BBC America's Boxing Day marathon started at 3 AM this morning would've made it clear. That makes this the perfect day to sing the praises of this great series. After all, who'd have thought that a show that was adapted from an American version would end up showing the American audience how it needs to be done?
This is coming from an admitted skeptic. When it was announced that we'd finally get the UK edition in the US, I was hopeful given the British history of turning out great crime dramas but not well informed enough to be sure about it. I'd seen Freema Agyeman in Doctor Who, and likewise knew Chris Chibnall's name from Torchwood, but that was it for me. I could tell you that Jamie Bamber had been in Battlestar Galactica, but never having seen Battlestar Galactica, it didn't exactly do me any good. No, I came to Law & Order: UK an almost completely blank slate, just pleading for something better than Law & Order: Los Angeles.
As Matt Devlin would say, "Result."
I've fallen in love with this show from top to bottom. It starts, of course, with the cast - a group of six capable actors and actresses, not a weak link among them. Even with all the talented British actors I've had the pleasure of watching over the years, I wouldn't change a one. It's natural to invoke comparisons between Bradley Walsh and the face of the Law & Order franchise, Lennie Briscoe, because they seem to be playing similar characters. Yet I find myself comparing the two because they share the same admirable characteristics. Both give subtle, understated performances, content to chew the scenery and almost ignorant of the fact that they're one of the stars of the show, almost more concerned with supporting their counterparts. Even so, their talent shines through with an effortless quip or just a look in the eye. There's a scene in "Unloved" where we don't get to hear a word of dialogue, but Walsh still manages to turn our heartstrings into knots. He's the anchor of the entire series.
I'll admit that I've got a bit of a harmless crush on the ridiculously good-looking Jamie Bamber, but that's not the reason why his Matt Devlin is one of my two favorite characters. I love him because he's written with an obvious passion for his job, and played with such spirit and charm. I feel for him when he's upset, shake my head when he goes on one of his angry tangents, and can't help but smile when he smiles. Jamie has a great expressiveness that works so well, and is more comedically gifted than I think he's been given credit for. That said, while Matt can be particularly amusing at times ("Sacrifice" comes to mind), he's neither written nor played to be witty for the sake of being so. Matt Devlin will never be that tired archetype of the smartmouthed, handsome, popular young hero; he's a fully three-dimensional, realistic Detective-Sergeant, who reminds me of cops that I know and love, and that's why I adore him.
Natalie Chandler plays the boys' supervisor, Detective Inspector Natalie Chandler, and she seems like she's having a great time doing it. Chandler could just sit behind a desk (I can think of episodes of the original series where the talented S. Epatha Merkerson was limited to doing just that) but she doesn't. We see her interacting with her detectives on a fairly regular basis, whether it's in her office or out on the street, and while Harriet Walter may not have the biggest role by design, like Merkerson before her, she certainly makes the most of it.
Now, we come to the Crown Prosecutors. I'm always going to have a soft spot for the Law & Order lawyers, because I almost became a prosecutor myself, and because that was entirely inspired by watching Michael Moriarty in the early years of the American series. That soft spot also made me have high expectations for the actors in those roles, and I was pleasantly surprised to have those expectations blown out of the water. Freema Agyeman successfully left the role of Martha Jones behind when she stepped into the part of Alesha Phillips. Alesha is smart, dedicated, and most importantly, I actually believe that she could be a Senior Crown Prosecutor someday. The majority of the time, whoever's in that second chair tends to operate in the senior partner's shadow, and as a result, some are woefully underdeveloped (Elisabeth Rohm, I'm looking at you). Alesha is much more utilized, and we get a real sense of who she is and her relationships with the other characters. She gets an entire episode of her own ("Alesha"), and it's not just a stunt episode but one that continues to send shockwaves through the show after it's over.
As much as I admired Steven Hill for his longstanding work on Law & Order, I have to admit that Bill Paterson blows him out of the water. Unlike Hill (whom I'll always remember for asking for less lines so the focus could be on his colleagues), Paterson actually gets the chance to leave his office and become part of the cases. In "Sacrifice" he actually defends someone in court, and in "Love and Loss" he helps Steel and Alesha with their paper trail. He gets his hands dirty and therefore becomes more than just a boss figure. Beyond that, there's a certain amount of glee while he's doing it that's endearing.
I'm not even sure where to start when it comes to Ben Daniels, whose character of James Steel has become my favorite Law & Order prosecutor. He had my attention from the very first episode, and I've become more and more impressed by him every week. The character of Steel mixes the best of those who've come before him: he's got the moral fortitude of Moriarty's Ben Stone and the cunning of Linus Roache's Michael Cutter, plus the added twist that he's a former defense attorney. He's got the principles we all wish we could have, and a cunning that means you're never quite sure what he might do next. Whatever he does, though, his heart's in the right place and he's dedicated to the very end, and sometimes even past that. He's the kind of lawyer I aspired to be. That's a tall order, but Daniels makes it look easy. Not only would I listen to him read the phone book, any time that he appears, he naturally commands attention. He has an intelligence and charisma that just can't be ignored. Having gotten to know both his talent and the man himself, I can say that I'm fully prepared to start crying when his last episode airs, because losing him from the show is going to break my heart. Actors like Ben Daniels don't come along very often.
All of these gifted cast members also share one very important thing in common: the ability to make something out of nothing. Law & Order is infamous for minimal character development, so the best actors on the show have been able to find ways to flesh out their characters however they can. Every member of this ensemble can do that. A common refrain when I discuss the series each week is to watch the actors when they're not doing anything; when the spotlight isn't on them, they're still making subtle choices that show us more than is on the page. A great example is in "Samaritan," when partners Brooks and Devlin are at odds. The scene is focused on Bradley Walsh interviewing a potential suspect; Jamie Bamber could sit there and coast. However, he decides to spend the entire time refusing to look his partner in the eye. He doesn't need to throw a chair; he lets his body language do the work. Maybe it's a British thing, but these subtle strokes only enhance my appreciation for these actors.
These are characters I've not only come to like and root for, but they're so engaging that they've become people I'd want to spend time with. Were they real people, I could easily see myself working alongside or having dinner with any of them. They're people I wouldn't mind having as colleagues or friends. This, of course, only makes me more inclined to invite them into my home every week.
Even the guest cast is impressive. We've seen Colin Salmon, Dervla Kirwan, Holly Aird, Iain Glen, Jamie Foreman and Kevin McNally, among others - they might not be household names, but they're certainly ones known to fans of British television, and have delivered some pretty great performances.
Of course, great actors will go to waste if they don't have equally great crewmembers supporting them. The Law & Order: UK writers are a smart, experienced bunch who honestly don't get enough credit in my book. So much has been made of this series being an adaptation, and a lot of it's been negative because American audiences don't seem to get what that means. "Adaptation" doesn't mean "literal word-for-word retelling." These writers have taken episodes from the original series (episodes which I doubt some of these complaining viewers can recall, as there's not one more recent than thirteen years old, but I digress) and they have infused new life into them. They're not just plugging in replacement names into an old narrative. They're allowing for the British justice system to come to proper life, for their characters to have their own unique voices and experiences, and that often means the end product becomes better than the original. I loved "American Dream," but the UK episode it led to, "Unsafe," is actually even more compelling. These writers put a lot of work into these scripts, and they really do make them into something unique.
That's something that comes across every week, in not only the writing but things like the beautiful set design and the crisp direction: Law & Order: UK really shows us London, as opposed to Los Angeles, which once named an episode after an area of the city that said episode never actually got anywhere near. Kudos to the writers, directors and crew for all the hard work that they put in to bring the London atmosphere to life.
All this is refreshingly done without the trappings and hangups that have marred other crime dramas in the past. Characters don't fit into neat little archetypes. They don't need an obligatory love interest. There is not the "very special episode" or the "stunt casting" to gain attention. You'll never find a cluttered narrative. The team behind Law & Order: UK gives us, every single week, a smartly acted, sharply written, simple and straightforward hour of drama. It's the kind of show that television just doesn't produce anymore. For that, I'm willing to sit up for a 3 AM marathon. I consider it time well spent.
Law & Order: UK returns to finish out Season 1 (Series 2) on January 7, and begins Season 2 (Series 3/4) on January 14, on BBC America. If you need to catch up before then, check out the Law & Order: UK category at my blog, DigitalAirwaves.net.