Saturday, August 24, 2013

Silk: It Goes Nicely with the Wigs

Rumpole never went for Queens Council.  He did not need the letters QC after his name to take on the clients that interested him.  However, for mere mortal barristers, it makes a world of difference for their careers.  The barristers of Shoe Lane Chambers are certainly human, at their best.  The pursuit of QC status and the silk robes that goes with it (hence the expression “taking silk”) will weigh heavily on Shoe Lane’s two leading barristers in Silk (promo here), which premieres on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery this Sunday.

Even Martha Costello’s name sounds trustworthy.  She really believes in all that “innocent until proven guilty” and “everyone is entitled to the best defense possible” rhetoric.  Clive Reader is a different story.  He is the John Edwards of chambers.  A smarmy charmer, his sexual escapes are already the stuff of Shoe Lane legend.  Both are going for silk.  A glad-hander like Reader would seem to have the inside track, but at least Costello has the advantage of being good at her job.  Inconveniently, not everyone sees it that way in the opening episode.

A small shingle like Shoe Lane depends on referrals from big time solicitors, like the ones representing a nasty piece of work named Gary Rush.  The ex-con stands accused of robbing and beating an aging war veteran.  The trial does not seem to be going well for Costello, which may have adverse silk implications for her.  She is also having a hard time with the accused drug mule she is simultaneously representing.  It seems Reader may have pulled a fast one on behalf of his own client, the co-defendant.

Both trials end on a rather ironic note, but there will be lasting repercussions from the Rush case.  Unfortunately, she made a rather strong impression on the thug, to a degree that will eventually become quite ominous.  For the time being, Costello will concentrate on more pressing matters, like her unplanned pregnancy and defending an accused rapist.  It is not the sort of case she would like to take, but Shoe Lane’s senior clerk Billy Lamb convinces her.

Viewers will pick up quite a bit of British legal lingo, but might remain baffled by the ins and outs of a system where private barristers can represent both the accused and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).  Colleagues from the same firm can even find themselves facing each other or representing co-defendants with conflicting interests.  Somehow it seems to work, but maybe not spectacularly well.

The second episode (or the third and fourth cobbled together for American television) introduce two more continuing side-plots.  This will be the first time Costello represents Mark Draper, a troubled youth accused of “cottaging” in a public men’s room.  Kate Brockman, Shoe Lane’s prosecution specialist, also starts conspiring to oust Lamb.  Not simply an employee, Lamb and his senior clerk brethren clearly exert considerable power behind the scenes, sort of like Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister.

In the final episode[s], Costello and Reader will sit for their silk interviews, their pupils will compete in a moot trial, and Draper will be back in court—this time on a murder trial.  Costello will also face off against one of Shoe Lane’s dullest and dumbest in a rare CPS appearance.  Arguably, her conflicted prosecution of Tony Paddick, a cyber-stalked teacher who finally snapped, is probably the best storyline of the entire first season.  It certainly raises the most issues regarding the nature of law and justice.  Frankly, Silk feels rather out of place in Masterpiece Mystery’s line-up.  Like its barrister characters, the show never shows any real interest in who actually committed each crime, but only whether they get a sufficiently robust defense.

There is also way too much time devoted to Reader’s grossly inappropriate (but still sadly clichéd) relationship with his pupil, Niamh Cranitch.  Indeed, so much personal angst clutters Silk, it feels much more closely akin to L.A. Law than Perry Mason or Rumpole of the Bailey.  As a result, there is a real been-there-done-that vibe to the show.

It is worth noting Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones and the already announced third Hunger Games movie co-stars as Cranitch, which may explain Masterpiece’s pick-up.  She has a screen presence, but her character acts far dumber than she sounds.  Maxine Peake is perfectly likable as Costello, but again her character could have been cribbed from Ally McBeel reruns.  Likewise, Rupert Penry-Jones more or less channels Corbin Bernsen’s Arnie Becker as Reader.  The only principle to really distinguish Silk is Neil Stuke as the intriguingly Machiavellian yet oddly paternalistic Lamb.

There is some decent courtroom drama in Silk as well as some passable backstabbing intrigue, but it never really sings or dances for viewers.  Despite some serviceable table-pounding, Silk does not make a compelling case for itself.  Just sort of whatever, it starts its three week run tomorrow night (8/25) as part of the current season of Masterpiece Mystery on most PBS outlets nationwide.