Based on the book of the same name by barrister Alex McBride, Defending the Guilty is a BBC2 comedy that shows us a very different side to British criminal law, rooted in absurd and blunt realities rather than the dramatic and dewy-eyed perspective viewers are used to. In fact, Katherine Parkinson’s character Caroline immediately shuts down the idea that law is about justice: in these courts, it’s about winning. Defending the Guilty doesn’t even pretend to be bogged down with the usual television ideas of law, and places you right in the heart of its binder-folder and coffee-and-croissants truth.
Defending the Guilty follows four pupil barristers as they fight for tenancy at chambers. Our focus is on charmingly naive and slightly hapless Will Packham (played excellently by Flowers creator Will Sharpe), mentored by the infamously antisocial Caroline who, of course, uses him to run errands. The other pupils are Danielle, who is talented but constantly undermined and a star among the cast; Liam, accurately nicknamed “Lanky Poison Twat”; and Pia, whose airy personality and mid-series breakdown mask her intelligence and potential. The pupils feel like people, first: sometimes it’s hard to imagine them as barristers when you spend most of your time watching them in the pub, failing in their own social lives. The episodes take a people-forward approach; we don’t spend that much time in the actual courtroom.
The series feels like Fresh Meat crossed with The Thick Of It; it’s unashamedly honest about the pupils’ disastrous personal lives, lyrically foul-mouthed, and surprisingly intelligent, with pupils and mentors alike constantly trying to one-up each other and nab the best cases (including, at one point, the “YouTube Paedo Nazi”). The social landscape is quick to change, with pupil team-ups changing and dissolving at every moment – but you can always count them to stick together at the pub, through thick and thin (and various disasters).
Will is nicknamed “DJ Stupid” for his habit of wearing headphones, and it’s his music taste that makes up the show’s distinctively indie soundtrack. It’s brilliant, like something out of a Radio 6 line-up, featuring artists such as alt-J, Wolf Alice, and Metronomy, as well as rarer but wonderful offerings such as Big Thief and SACRED PAWS. The music genuinely adds to the scenes: Grimes’s “Genesis” highlights the relief of a young slam poet let off in the first episode, adding surprising emotional depth to a very short storyline. But it’s hard to fit this kind of a soundtrack into six 30-minute episodes, and so oftentimes the songs feel as if they cut off too soon.
You often feel ready to tear your hair out at Will’s actions, but it’s a portrayal of a flawed character drowning slightly in the reality of life as a barrister. We get an insight, too, into his mentor Caroline’s seemingly doomed quest to achieve silk, but despite our frustrations, the show is able to invite us to feel empathy for them. No matter how strong a character is, or how well they seem to be doing, a crash is inevitable, and it hurts when it happens.
Though the plot is engaging, it feels as if it ends too quickly. It’s also a difficult balance, juggling various mentors and four trainees in such a limited time. The show is crying out for a second series and for more time – it didn’t feel as if we got enough emotional resolution at the end of the series, or much resolution at all. The tenancy deathball continues, and we still feel no surer of who will win. Hopefully Defending the Guilty will continue, too, because with more time, the show seems guaranteed to flourish.
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