Last Night's Television - In Treatment, Sky Arts 1; Criminal Justice, BBC1
Case for the defence
"Beleagured" is the word most often prefixed to the BBC these days, and that won't change any time soon, but still, a well-written, superbly acted, boldly scheduled drama is just what the dear old BBC needs as the nights draw in, and in the excellent
Criminal Justice, is what it has.
The series occupies an hour of BBC1 primetime every evening this week, following the catastrophic personal lives of a brilliant barrister, Joe Miller (Matthew Mcfadyen), and his nervy wife, Juliet (Maxine Peake). An engrossing opening episode began with Miller in court, making a fiercely eloquent closing speech for the prosecution in the case of a man being tried for murder. The defendant was duly convicted, and Miller packed his wig away, master of his domain, yet by the closing credits he was in intensive care fighting for his life, having been stabbed in the stomach while lying in bed, apparently by Juliet, although, perhaps crucially, we didn't see her administer the blow.
What was particularly clever about Peter Moffat's script was the way in which it manipulated our sympathies. Miller was presented as a hero, attractive and charming, and responsible for removing a murderer from society. His fleeting stop on a towpath while out for a run (incidentally, why does everyone out for a run in television drama end up on a towpath?), seemingly to buy drugs from a group of youths, hinted at secrets he wouldn't want to become public, but on arriving at his gleaming home he appeared every inch the attentive father and husband. A cuckolded husband, too, we were led to believe. Juliet's neurotic state seemed connected with an extramarital affair, and Miller was suspicious, using his keen legal mind to follow a series of clues that led him to the father of his daughter Ella's friend.
It was behind the bedroom door that our sympathies started to shift. Miller appeared to subject Juliet to anal rape, and a whole new emotional hinterland came into focus: an abused wife at the end of her tether. By the end, Juliet had confessed to the crime, duped by a devious policeman (Steven Mackintosh). He had promised to let her see Ella (Alice Sykes), who was herself briefly a suspect, having been discovered next to her father holding the knife, which, in a particularly distressing scene that would once have been beyond the boundaries for primetime TV drama, she had pulled out of his blood-soaked stomach.
All of which should get you up to speed for tonight, should you have been unfortunate enough to miss episode one. Criminal Justice is not without flaws (since when did senior police officers, here in the reassuring form of Denis Lawson, answer 999 calls?), but it's good enough for my wife and me to have remade our social arrangements for the rest of the week.
And there's another nightly bonus, too, in In Treatment, in which Gabriel Byrne plays Paul, an Irish psychotherapist based in America, with each episode a two-hander between him and a different patient. Having earlier stepped doughtily to the defence of the BBBC, let me now question why it, and all other big networks, allowed this forensically brilliant US series to wind up on Sky Arts 1? Significantly, Britain is also the last major market in Europe to buy it, which doubtless says something about our innate mistrust of mind doctors.
Anyway, the format came from Israeli television and was remade in America under the imprimatur of HBO, an assurance of quality that was once conveyed by abbreviations such as M&S and, for that matter, BBC. My spine positively stiffens with anticipation when I see those letters HBO materialising on the screen and hear the accompanying jingle, a Pavlovian response (as my therapist might confirm if only I had one) that I think began with The Sopranos.
In Treatment evokes The Sopranos in other ways, too, for it was Tony's sessions with Jennifer Melfi that introduced many of us to the intriguing nuances of the relationship between psychotherapist and patient, the relationship at the heart of In Treatment. Last night's session was with Laura (Melissa George), who, it turned out, had formed a powerful crush on Paul (just as Tony fancied the pants off Dr Melfi). She is also a self-absorbed, self-pitying young woman arguably in need of sharper treatment than Paul is able to dispense, but then I suppose self-absorption and self-pity are to some extent prerequisites for entering psychoanalysis in the first place. Or maybe I'm a typically buttoned-up, narrow-minded Brit, like those TV executives who decided to pass on In Treatment.
Whatever, it's exceedingly classy drama, reliant almost more on the pitch-perfect acting than on the excellence of the writing. It's impossible to take your eyes off Byrne's performance, which is all the more remarkable given that he has so little to say. And George is no less compelling as Laura, to whose problems we will return every Monday, with other patients on other days of the week, and Paul himself pouring his troubles out to his own therapist on Fridays. That should be worth waiting for.
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