Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Law and Order | UK

I've just finished the second episode of this newly launched series on Britain's ITV. As a huge fan of the US franchises, how is the UK version stacking up?

Not well, unfortunately. But it's still early days.

A reviewer on IMDB wrote that he didn't expect a spin-off of a show to be as good as the original. But, this is Law and Order we're talking about! In my opinion, each of the spinoffs (exception to the ill fated "Trial by Jury") has taken on its own unique flair and become just as successful it their own right.

Before I comment on the UK show per se, I would like to quickly recap what to me makes the US franchises continually successful:

The original L&O has run nearly 19 years now. Crap! And it's still fresh as ever, because it's allowed to evolve but the production crew also remains true to the elements that give it its verve.

The platform upon which the characters act is going to be what draws you in and gets to interested. It's why some like L&O but not Battlestar Galactica. You have to enjoy the surroundings. In this case it's the legal process. Curiosity about crime, motives of perpetrators, process of investigation, the working of the legal system. The legal maneuvers are always great TV. Courtroom dramas aren't new, but we enjoy watching the system.

But, character development is key to any successful series, above pretty much everything else. The L&O staff in the US have deeply understood this. The pains taken to weave the complex stories of the lives of the characters gives them depth and dynamism. It's part of the acting. It helps the acting to be more subtle, and then often better, because we know the thoughts occurring behind the characters eyes.

The L&O staff also are not afraid to gamble their characters. We see them in challenging situations which, at first, may not seem to fit into the greater premise of the show, but when they pay off (as happens more than not), it's big. There have been many character swapouts over the life of the franchise. Each time I've approached the new character with guarded suspicion (how could they be better than Lennie Briscoe or Robert Goren?), but after a few shows grew to love the new people just like the old. Chemistry between the pairings is important also, in this regard.

The other major aspect which L&O gets right consistently is storyline. They are adept at having simultaneous threads weaving a tapestry and having multi-episode arcs featuring an overhanging plot, or having some bit of plot return regularly, perhaps many episodes later (like DA McCoy's struggle with the Governor and his political machine, or Goren's battles with nemesis Nicole Wallace).

The overstory elements add richness, continuity to the characters lives, and believability overall. The episodic plots are never ordinary, even when they appear so at the outset. A subtle twist of purpose, situation, or reveal of the mundane bit as piece in a larger and more interesting framework is frequently involved. Above all, it's captivating and believably plausible. Their technique of "ripped from the headlines" story ideas has helped them beat out writing doldrums to great effect. As you watch, you realize the action feels as though it's mirroring a well publicized real dramatic crime.

The last bit for me is the operation of the system. The narrator's sole appearance is to tell you in a few seconds that you're about to enter into the specially structured world of criminal justice, here are the groups, and these are their stories. Hook!

Now: the UK version

My first thought as I watched the titles and the narrator spoke a variation on those famous words was, "Oh boy! I'm going to learn all about the UK system. Virgin territory!"

Well so far, the show's plots haven't helped illuminate how the mechanics and structure of the UK system differ from the US. That may not be the goal, I understand, but the US show is better at showing you how the US system is organized...and that's for the US audience. I mean, not all of us came out of public school with perfect scores in our American civics classes. If the UK show gave the same treatment to it's audience, both they and myself as a foreigner, would likely learn a thing or two, and find it more entertaining.

The first episode featured too much ragged camera work. Handheld shots are good for building tension in the field, but more polish of setup dolly and steadycam shots for office, interior, and building work would give the visuals more credibility. Episode two was an improvement in this regard.

"Dun-dun!" Any fan knows that trademark breathy, ominously dramatic clink-clank sound. It serves to keep the tension up, while linking widely diverse settings. But UK...don't overdo it. Frak! In episode one, it was "dun-dun"-ing with practically every cut (except, strangely, the very first cut from the titles to scene one, which is mandatory on the US serves to be the opening of the doors to the start of the story). You have to know when to hold back. In the US, the dun-dun sound is reserved for major setting shifts, primarily between the groups of actors, like the police vs. the DAs vs. courtroom. It usually also signals a shift between whole plot aspects. More minor or naturally following scene changes do not require it. Use sparingly for best effect UK! Episode two was better at this.

Most disappointing of all so far have been the central plots. What a letdown. There may be a bit of culture distinction to this, but I've found them contrived. Mundane overall, but also preposterous in certain aspects. Passerby finds unattended bag, notices it wriggling, thinks its a bomb? Police find baby inside? Well...obviously he'd've been crying like crazy, huh? And...bombs don't wriggle. At worst, they tick. The episode was based on S02E18 from the US version, and the US plot is much better and better executed by the action (even then, it wasn't the best the US either).

The plots also would be better if they were designed to connect with and be more relevant to present real life situations and current events. This is why the "ripped from the headlines" episodes in the US versions have been very popular. The audience can easily relate to what they're seeing.

The second episode dealt with the nature-nurture question, but in a clumsy and ham-fisted way. The interaction with the young child murderer was well acted, but over-dramatic and assumed a more adult style of relationship which was inappropriate for a boy.

Time is growing short for me tonight, so let me wrap by saying this: with a great show, you know it when you see it. You feel it. It finishes and you say, "dang, that was awesome!" For the US series, my wife and I have exchanged these moments often. If it's particularly good, we find ourselves continuing to talk about plot points well on after the show.

So far for the UK version, I've found myself wanting, badly, for it to be good. I realized it hasn't so far been working out when I noticed that during the show, I was mentally trying to convince myself it was good. In short, I wasn't "feeling" it.

On characters, so far I don't care for DI Natalie Chandler. She doesn't have much chemistry with the DS's and saps their energy. This is an important role. Think of Lt. Van Buren, Captains Cragen, Deakins, and Ross. They're all hard-bitten career veterans of the force. You sense their history in the way they herd their "cats" and act as liason between the political worlds of the chiefs and DAs, and the raw realities on the ground faced by their officers. The relationship can be poignant at times, as all of these characters have fallen on their swords to protect their people at one time or another.

I get none of this energy out of DI Chandler. See seems a simple gov't bureaucrat to me. I don't sense a history of a veteran cop in her. The police force also seems to end with her. She makes it seem like the post office. In the US, the police are a force, not merely an institution. You sense the overhang of an organization which extends far beyond the Lieutenant or Captain in the squad room.

DS Devlin...well, we've got the star power in Bamber. But in the US, not all the Det.'s were obvious stars, but if they weren't noteworthy before taking their role on the show, they certainly became so because of it. I can't write Bamber off, but the stories haven't played well to him (or any of them, frankly) so far. DS Brooks, however, has character which is seeping out. I'm growing to like him much faster.

The whole team on the Crown Prosecution is great. Fells much like the US shows here. But they're all being let down by the poor plots at the moment.

Writers, writers, writers! Listen up! The show is ready to roll. The team need you to bring it for success to happen. Steep yourselves in the best eps from the US versions and then translate that into the UK sphere. I want depth, I want outrageous, ethically challenging, yet believably plausible stories. Take the most sensational of your true crime and stamp its elements into this mold. How about: confronting the nanny state, struggle against islamofascism, touchy political relationships (aren't their thorny conflicts at times between England and Scotland and Ireland? What are the hot-button political issues in the UK? Craft a stories that probe deep into them unapologetically and without fear at-all of being politically correct!) Challenge the viewers! We're smart. Hide details and create dramatic revelations. Make it hard on the audience. One of the things we love to do with the US show is guess about the plot developments to come. It's become a social game when we have friends over!

Intrigue! We need intrigue!

Meh... I'm hopeful it will find its legs. I want it to be good. But within a few more episodes, if I'm still not feeling it, I'll need to write it off. Season 8 of L&O:CI is coming, and I cannot wait for it!

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