It's true that there is a flourishing sub-genre, in which a cast-iron case is inexorably corroded by the determination of the defence brief, but even that is prone to anxieties, a sweaty insomniac doubt about just what has been achieved. Remember Jagged Edge, in which Glenn Close very nearly paid the ultimate price for the sin of helping to acquit a psychopath? On television, defence lawyers are usually impediments to the rough justice of policemen - they are sly, underhand, simoniacal, using the letter of the law to violate its spirit.
So it is slightly unusual to find not just one defence lawyer on our screen, but two: James Kavanagh QC and Ted Hoffman, the billiard-ball tonsured protagonist of Murder One (BBC2). Both dramas exploit the particular professional uncertainty of the defence lawyer - the nagging sense that they help to make the world a less safe place, but Steven Bochco presses much harder on the accompanying uncertainties of the audience.
Murder One is not only an oddity in that it stretches a single celebrity murder trial over 23 weeks (a considerable compression of reality if you think of the OJ Simpson and Menendez brothers), but also because it takes a genre villain and tries to work him as a troubled hero. Some of this is quite bold: Ted Hoffman's two principal clients so far have been classic television bad guys - the machiavellian Richard Cross, a personification of corrupted power, and the unlovable Neil Avedon, the epitome of corrupted celebrity. Both are, in narrative terms, ripe for punishment, but Hoffman intercedes. And as he spouts legalistic cliches to assembled pressmen, as he performs little pantomimes of strategic indignation which we know he doesn't feel, your sympathies are left to dangle. How can he do this kind of thing? Even his wife wants to know, and she's had years to get used to the demands of his job.
Bochco won't even take out an insurance policy with his casting. In Kavanagh QC (ITV) any moral queasiness is calmed by the presence of John Thaw, an actor who offers a shorthand for obdurate probity. We can hardly forget Morse, the exposer of sin, while watching Kavanagh, its hired apologist. Everything about his features reassures, too - from the curly white locks protruding from beneath the horsehair, to the fatigue on that weathered and familiar face. We're left in no doubt that Kavanagh has a conscience - he has a daughter whose sole dramatic purpose seems to be to doubt it, so that he can loudly protest. And when his skills release a psychopath (as in last night's concluding episode), he happily breaks legal protocol to put things right (in a rather cowardly move on the part of the script- writers, we are even supplied with a joke figure, a cheerfully amoral colleague to draw unfriendly fire).
In Murder One, on the other hand Daniel Benzali comes across as a central- casting villain, Uncle Fester with a law degree. He talks with the silky, affectless control of a movie maniac - genuine rage (rather than the synthetic form he uses in public) makes him put the brakes on, blink-rate slowing to increase the threat of eventual retribution. This is actually becoming faintly risible (no one could live at such rarified altitudes of emotional solemnity), but it doesn't make the task of identifying with him any easier. Perhaps that's why the series still has such a powerful grip, even as the plot is ramifying into an impenetrable bramble.Reuse content