“Another courtroom drama?” you sigh.
Yes, but this one has Rupert Penry-Jones, English accents, fancy robes, and wigs.
So you agree to give it a try.
Now, would it be cruel of me to say that in episode 1 the wigs are the most entertaining part of Silk?
Call me harsh; I know there are those would disagree with me—especially considering that Silk has run for three years in the U.K., which means someone likes it—but there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before in…oh, let’s say… every courtroom drama ever.
Maxine Peake stars as Martha Costello, a barrister poised to “take silk”—the term used to describe lawyers who ascend to the status of Queen’s Counsel. She’s a feisty workaholic, who has family issues, drinks beer straight from the bottle, and has been known to wake up at her desk at 5 a.m. with her face drool-stuck to a legal brief. (Admittedly, the drool is implied.)
Rupert Penry-Jones, yet again in hunky charmer mode, is Clive Reader, a fellow barrister who’s also hoping to take silk. He’s smooth, cocky, prefers more costly intoxicants, and hobnobs with the posh set (he went to Harrow). He’s never drooled in his life.
Because the two happen to work in the same small chambers—an office shared among several barristers, who occasionally oppose each other in court—we’re informed that only one can be named a QC. Don’t ask why; it’s merely a device to set up TENSION. I’m guessing the countdown to Martha and Clive’s first snogging session begins… now.
Martha is a woman with a closet full of virtually identical white blouses; who impishly uses a red lipstick to mark a case file “NG” for “not guilty.” She never moves at anything slower than a trot, juggling files and clients with questionable dexterity, her eyes flashing with righteousness, her wig ever so slightly askew. She’s reckless, resentful, obvious, obnoxious…
Half-an-hour into episode 1 all I could think was “I really, really dislike this woman.”
To be fair, however, I think Martha suffers from the insidious ailment that plagues many female characters in TV and movies: she is a woman written by a man who thinks he can write “strong female characters.” Seriously… after the lipstick thing—which happened about 5 minutes into the show—Martha was beyond redemption.
We also have two “pupils” assigned to shadow the barristers as they run through their paces. Natalie Dormer is Niamh, the well-connected trust fund baby who’s shadowing Clive. You know her as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones and/or Anne Boleyn in The Tudors and/or Irene Adler in Elementary. What are the odds that her character in Silk will turn out to be a conniving minx?
Tom Hughes plays Nick, who’s shadowing Martha, and what a scamp he is.
“How old are you?” he asks Martha.
He narrows his eyes. “How long have you been thirty-five?”
“Couple of years,” she smirks.
Adorable! Except, because we know that Martha has been at this barristering thing for fifteen years already, the fact that she’s so bad at it is really hard to take. She’s disorganized. She’s a muddy thinker. She’s a poor judge of people. She lives and breathes hubris and she’s being played every step of the way by her boss, her colleagues, the judges, her clients.
In this episode, Martha defends a man accused of tying up and torturing a spry 85-year-old widower (who has a medal for his service in World War II no less). Then she defends a man accused of raping his girlfriend. Whether you want her to win really depends on how much you believe in Martha’s competence, judgment, and character. I have to say, I wasn’t buying it.
Silk continues for two more weeks on Masterpiece Mystery. In my opinion, it improves a bit in episode 2. Still, there’s not much to distinguish it from the standard courtroom drama. Except the wigs.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.