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What do Criminal Justice, Unforgiven and The Reader have in common?

October 8, 2009

This writerly life has come to a complete standstill since our little girl arrived a week ago — and I’ll keep this brief — but I have made time to catch series two of Criminal Justice on BBC1, by Peter Moffat. We are up to episode 3 as I write. I was a big fan of the first series and drama serials is the area I have been working in myself, and so I’ve disregarded the ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ advice to tune in.

The show is a rarity for modern television, in that the pacing is measured, leisurely almost, eschewing the current imperative to get in and out of scenes as quickly as possibly to keep things moving along at the fast clip demanded by today’s attention-deficit audiences. The characters are allowed to breath and significant moments are dwelled upon, the camera lingering, shots held longer than we are accustomed to. It is an immersive experience compared to most contemporary drama, helped by strong performances and the obviously very high production values. The opening episode was masterful.

The show has a great deal going for it.

So what’s wrong with it?

The central character, Juliet Miller, is a passive protagonist, and it is notoriously difficult to sustain audience interest when the central character fails to take decisive action to achieve their objectives (or extricate themselves from a predicament as is the case here). She is going to be tried for the murder of her husband, will lose her new baby in the process, and is doing nothing to defend herself.

Juliet Miller is one of a subset of passive protagonists, if my brain were less baby-addled I might coin a name for it, whereby they have the ability to save themselves but choose not to, often because they are protecting someone else. She is withholding information about her husband which we are encouraged to believe could exonerate her. We don’t know yet what that information is, whether she is protecting her daughter or whether she is simply protecting the memory of her dead husband, or someone else altogether, and we have no way of gauging whether it is a secret worth keeping, potentially worth a life in prison, her family lost to her.

Reveal the secret and the story comes to an end, just like that. I don’t know what the secret is, nor what it will take to reveal it, but I can say with near-certainty that it will be revealed sometime around 9:45 on Friday night. The particulars of how and when the secret is revealed will determine whether we have a happy, tragic, or bittersweet ending.

But in the meantime we are left mouthing in frustration at the screen: come on woman, spit it out!

It reminds of Sally Wainwright’s Unforgiven on ITV, which also featured a woman, Ruth Slater, who was what we might call a victim protagonist, who carried with her a secret, and who could solve her problem (being allowed to see the younger sister given up for adoption when Ruth was imprisoned for killing two police officers) simply by revealing the secret.

If Sally Wainwright was more successful at forestalling audience frustration with the protagonist than Peter Moffat, I suspect it is simply down to run-time: I have the impression that five hours is just too long to try and sustain audience interest when the dramatic core is actually rather weak, however great the writing that envelops it.

Although Kate Winslet’s character in The Reader may not so readily be labelled a victim, she too had the power within herself to save herself from a lifetime in prison at a stroke by revealing her secret, though in this instance I personally found it credible that she would not and that it added to the tragedy of her situation. But if they had stretched her story out to five hours I don’t suppose I would have been quite so forgiving.

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