Television Review: Law & Order UK on BBC America

By Michael Vass | November 13, 2010

Law & Order has been a staple of television in the U.S. for nearly 2 decades. It has dominated it’s timeslot and is highly popular in reruns and cable syndication. It’s been so successful that the BBC has decided to copy it.

In entertainment, copying an existing television show or film is not just an honor – it’s good business sense. Much like the philosophy of converting television shows to movies, or remaking a prior success, entertainment survives in part on cannabalizing success across the seas.

But the translation from one country to another does not always go over well. Even with the close cultural connection of the U.S. and the UK, the process can be difficult. Examples abound: Friends gave birth to the UK show Coupling, which was copied for the U.S. and failed miserably. Life on Mars was a success in the UK, only to miss gaining an audience in America.

Even copies that work often are less than stellar. Leverage is hardly the match of it’s UK original. Though the rare breakthrough does occur, as with The Office, and the aforementioned Coupling.

So where does Law & Order UK fall? Can the staple of justice in New York City translate into the legal system of the UK where prosecutors (called Crown Prosecutors) where wigs and the laws diverge from what we would expect?

The show works, though the difference is more than just the changes in legal systems. Americans that are often lost listening to the Queen’s English, will be able to follow the program easily enough. The differences in titles of police officers (Detective Inspectors) and lawyers (Barristers) and such are simple enough to be understood by even the most dense viewer. So language differences are not an issue to impeed viewership.

The series has been on the BBC since 2009. So there is no question that the formula of the crime, the investigation, and the prosecution, works overseas as well as here. Fans of the U.S. version will have no problem following the format. Though, so far, the emphasis is a bit more heavy on the Crown Prosecutors and their actions prior to actually going into the courtroom.

The acting is where things go on a different track. In the U.S. there is more of a upbeat tempo to the pace of the program. The begining of the program is a bit more action involved with the legal portion being more fast paced.

In the UK version things slow down, a lot. It’s like riding a subway train with only half the power and thus half the speed. The police are Det. Sergeant Matt Devlin (Jaime Bamber – known to most in the US as Lee Adama in the horrendous remake of Battlestar Galactica by SyFy Channel), Det. Sergeant Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh), Det. Inspector Natalie Chandler (Harriet Walter). The prosecutors are Junior Crown Prosecutor Alesha Phillips (Freema Agyeman – known for her role as Dr. Martha Jones on Dr. Who – 10th Doctor), Senior Crown Prosecutor James Steel (Ben Daniels), and Director of CPS London George Castle (Bill Paterson).

The actors are all good, but seem wooden. They come off more as the stereotypical British than a representation of real police and prosecutors. It’s hard to believe that the average British citizen is so stiff – all the time.

Even in scenes where say Det. Devlin (the presumably more empathic of the 2 officers) is supposed to be outraged, or say when CP Steel is confronted by a long-time friend he has accused of criminal action, there seems to be a massive detactment. The emotions, no matter what they are espousing, just don’t ring true. We expect that from Bamber, as Battlestar Galactica was filled with such scenes, but Agyeman should be far better (we are not familiar with the other actors to comment).

Overall, even with these faults, American fans of the Law & Order series will not be disappointed. The show, though in another country, remains loyal to the spirit of what is a fan favorite. Plus there is the bonus that the series is on-going so there are plenty of shows to watch.

Lastly, the popular dun-dun musical soundtrack has been transported unchanged.

BBC got it right. Now all you have to do is find it on BBC America.

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