I love mysteries, specifically the hardboiled and procedural varieties with private eyes, cops and especially lawyers. They so consistently produce great character-driven stories. Where would Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” be without Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and
Miss Wonderly Miss LeBlanc Bridget O’Shaughnessy? Not to mention that most inscrutable of P.I.’s, Sam Spade?
While the genre has been a television staple for decades, variations on the theme keep it refreshing. English television has definitely outpaced its American cousin in this regard: “Happy Valley” and “The Fall” feature female leads, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the iconic “Prime Suspect.” Although the co-leads of “Broadchurch” consist of a mixed doubles detective partnership, romance is definitely not in the air (and please, may it never come to that). Two more shows on which I recently binged easily match these for quality—the Australian series, “Janet King,” available on Acorn TV, and its predecessor, “Crownies,” all 22 episodes of which are up on YouTube.
Though they feature the same characters, these two series couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. “Crownies,” centering on five junior solicitors in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” in its depiction of eager (in all senses of the word) young professionals mentored by the presumably older and wiser. It’s very much a dramedy—the genuinely funny moments far outnumber the cringeworthy, but both are outweighed by the seriousness of the cases the DPP handles. On full view are the Attorney General who drugged and raped the women who worked for him, the sisters who beat to death the man who’d seemingly been abusing them, the convenience store murderer whose crime is caught on surveillance video in gruesome detail, the 11 year-old boy who may or may not have murdered his younger brother—the list goes on.
What makes “Crownies” somewhat unusual is that the gray areas of these cases, especially the kiddie and domestic violence killings, are explored in such depth. It’s the DPP’s responsibility to determine whether to prosecute, and the show doesn’t stint on discussions (and frequent arguments) regarding the legal merits of these cases. It’s refreshing to see such thought put into a television series. And I have to admit I’m more than a little envious of my brothers and sisters at the bar who can cross-examine a witness with “I put it to you that…” instead of the far more passive-aggressive “Isn’t it true that…?” we’re forced to use.
Although the acting is uniformly excellent, not all the juniors are equally enjoyable. Three are flat-out terrific no matter their flaws: Erin (Ella Scott Lynch), whose fondness for wine leads her to make some really bad choices in the male department; Lina (Andrea Demetriades), of Palestinian background, who stubbornly sees no future in her relationship with Andy, a police detective; and Richard (Hamish Michael), the classic genius who’s classically inept away from his books. Rounding out the quintet are Tatum (Indiana Evans), an irritating princess type whose father evidently became rich by stepping over if not causing a few dead bodies, and Ben (Todd Lasance), the spoiled rich kid with the barrister father (When Erin, exasperated, asks him at one point, “Don’t you ever get tired of you?,” you’ll find yourself yelling back at your TV, “I sure do!”). All five are instructing solicitors who prepare cases for trial by their superiors and appear on behalf of the state on petty matters. And each is an excellent lawyer, regardless of personality.
In contrast, “Janet King” is very much a procedural, featuring a dark story of mercy killing (maybe), child abuse, kiddie porn and corruption in high places. It discards the ensemble show concept in favor of a leading character, and for good reason. Superbly played by Marta Dusseldorp, Janet King is a senior crown counsel who seems at first glance to be a staple of the genre: the unflappable stoic hero(ine). Naturally, appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. She cares about the junior solicitors in the DPP; she’s an excellent mentor, giving praise and challenging them to do their best (We see a subtle change in the later series—the professor/student dynamic that prevailed in “Crownies” has been replaced by a greater sense of collegiality). There’s an underlying kindness as she advises the bumbling Richard to pace himself when he’s about to work all night to prepare a case (not hers) for trial, and she doesn’t hesitate to read Erin the riot act for letting a very promising future slip away because of her affair with the wine bottle. Although she tells Richard she doesn’t let the horror of her cases get to her (“It sounds weird but it just doesn’t touch me at all”), we later see her break down, sobbing, over the deaths of two young boys drugged and suffocated by their mother.
Fortunately, Janet’s professional life is well-balanced by a rich personal life. While we know in “Crownies” that she’s trying to get pregnant, it’s not revealed until a number of episodes later via an amusing bit of misdirection that her partner, Ash, is a woman; later on we find out that Janet is carrying twins. Pregnant lady humor may seem clichéd, but given what these characters do for a living, it’s a welcome break (The scene in which Erin attempts to distract her when she goes into labor is classic. “Wait–you’re telling me lawyer jokes?”). Another of my favorite sequences in “Crownies” involves Ben, Mr. Suave himself, getting so rattled in court by a senior counsel’s alcoholic meltdown, that he can’t even spell his own name correctly for the court stenographer when he’s forced to take over. A later scene, in which he and Richard compare their respective idiocies over a shared sandwich, is a great bit of comic timing. Bravo, gents.
Acorn TV will be adding Season 2 of “Janet King” starting August 29. (It’s currently available on YouTube, but the quality is not the best). No fools they, Acorn will only be adding one new episode a week, so no binging, at least not yet. No sense giving it all away during the one-month free trial period, right?