TV Blog: The best (and worst) of the week's telly

Blog by Chris Lindsay | 12 Oct 2009

Every now and then a show comes along that rewrites the rules and changes the way television is made. Such was the first series of BBC1’s Criminal Justice (BBC1, Monday to Friday) which broadcast last year to critical acclaim and a slew of awards. A new take on the crime genre, looking at all aspects of how our legal system – the police, lawyers, social workers, prison staff – handle those accused but not yet convicted of a serious crime, the show also boasted a brand new format. Instead of appearing in weekly instalments the show was ‘stripped’ (as is the technical term) over five consecutive weeknights; the idea being in an age of diminishing viewing figures to create an ‘event’.

Series two followed the same set up, taking us on a roller coaster of emotions every night last week. Featuring an entirely new cast and story, the drama this time starred Shameless’ Maxine Peake as the wife of a high-flying lawyer who kills her husband after suffering years of abuse. So in shock as to the full extent of her abuse and her actions, she is easily manipulated by careerist policemen and biased judges into confessing her guilt when in reality she was acting in self-defence, leaving it up to her legal team to fight her corner.

While critical of the system, the show is careful not to caricature all of the officials involved as corrupt boasting a number of conflicted officers as well as a wonderfully principled turn from Denis ‘Wedge from Star Wars’ Lawson as the head of the investigation. The whole cast are fantastic but special mention must go to Peake playing against type marvellously as a successful middle-class woman cast adrift in a women’s prison. Harrowing but compelling Criminal Justice demands five hours of your time but is worth every second.

From the real to the hyper real, Channel 4’s Deep South set vampire import True Blood (Channel 4, Wednesday) finally arrived on terrestrial telly last week. Vampires are ‘in’ just now in a big way but with teen smash Twilight and Being Human doing well so it begs the question of what a new show can offer. First up, True Blood is an altogether more adult story than either, even making 18 rated Buffy spin-off Angel look like kiddie fair. Expanding the old vampirism equals repressed sexuality shtick into gender politics, the series is set in a world where, after synthetic blood has taken away their need to feed, vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’ - seeking to live as part of mainstream society.

Set in small town Louisiana the show documents the town’s first ‘out’ vampire as he attempts to ingratiate himself with the locals - though all bar a sweet, clean livin’ psychic waitress are scared of him. But while the townsfolk claim to have never encountered the undead before, it is clear that many of them have had secret dealings with several unsavoury vamps – either through drug-running or prostitution (does that count as necrophilia?).

As well as exploring gender prejudice the show also looks at contemporary porn culture and the dual standards in operation in Bible-belt areas of the states, having much to say on both. Stylistically strong, the opening episode is an effective piece of world building with a killer alt-country soundtrack, even if it creeps along slowly, and lacks an immediate focus. Despite these faults, and being overly gratuitous at times, it is good to see a fantasy show full of big ideas and presenting its genre without needing to be ironic. One to keep an eye on.

Despite the current vogue for reimagining Jane Austen classics with some sort of horror element – the wonderfully silly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters novels being the most well known examples - there were sadly no vampires on show in Emma (BBC1, Sunday) though Emma the Vampire Slayer would surly an adaptation waiting to happen. Despite Austen’s interfering heroine not taking up a crucifix and stake there was much to enjoy.

Many of the BBC’s more recent costume drama adaptations have felt needlessly over long and complicated but on the evidence of the opener this four-parter is breezy and fun, feeling modern without sacrificing the sense of the period. The tale of a bored socialite who, seemingly destined to not marry but instead look after her father, meddles in the love lives of others, Emma is an interesting tale and star Romola Garai does well to imbue the title character with a lot of likably despite her annoying ways.

As a 27-year-old bloke I am not the target market for costume drama but have always had a soft spot for tales of manners and romance and this is an excellent example of the genre. Though not nearly up there with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Emma is nevertheless a classily directed and performed piece of work, and after a week of hard-hitters such as Criminal Justice and True Blood, just the thing to unwind to.

All five parts of Criminal Justice can be viewed over at the iplayer.

Episodes one and two of True Blood are available to watch at 4od.

Parts one and two of Emma can be seen on the iplayer.