July 11, 2008

TV Review: Criminal Justice

I’m always curious to watch anything that bills itself as a prison drama, because HBO’s Oz is one of the all time great television shows, and it’s interesting to see other shows try and live up to that. To it’s credit, Criminal Justice offers a fairly accurate (if somewhat less violent and rapey) view of life in jail, but that’s only half the story. The other half is your traditional court-room drama. But this isn’t just a show that conflates the two to tell the story of a prisoner on trial. Criminal Justice is literally half of each. We don’t get a fully featured court-drama, much of what doesn’t directly tie-in to the story is discarded and even the closing arguments are skipped entirely. Boston Legal this ain’t. Likewise we see the major events in prison but we’re shown little of Ben’s day to day life and the growing sense of dread and hopelessness he feels.

Instead the two halves of the show cannibalise each other, bumping against each other like some really awkward dance-floor foreplay, before embracing each other in an inevitable but ultimately unsatisfactory union.

That’s not to say it’s a bad show, Ben’s descent into helplessness isn’t as well portrayed as that of Tobias Beecher in series one of Oz, but it does a decent job. The courtroom stuff is still compelling and the twist at the end is well thought out and makes sense, you probably couldn’t see it coming but there are hints dropped, even if the link to Ben’s prison life is unnecessary and laboured.

What really makes this show are the characters. The evil prison kingpin is suitably creepy and well-spoken, Ben’s lawyer Stone is a fascinating enigma, and police investigator Box is just wonderful. Initially he seems to be your stereotypical “good cop looking for the truth” but there’s something not quite right about him. Occasionally his actions are totally out of character for that archetype, and the eventual revelation pulls a wonderful bait and switch on us and suddenly everything makes sense.

Ben Whishaw’s Ben is certainly the true star of the show though, he plays the role with a quiet understatement punctuated by occasional bursts of anger that really do put us in the mind of a man wrongfully arrested, but that is starting to doubt himself.

Oh and Ros out of BUGS turns up as well.

If you’ve watched Oz this entire show might seem a little tame but if not then it’s well worth a watch, one of the better UK dramas of late and still really quite harrowing.

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