Trial & Retribution: Set 1 (review)

Ahead of Its Crime

Four episodes, it says on the sleeve of Acorn Media’s new Brit-crime DVD package Trial & Retribution: Set 1. So you think, okay, maybe four hours of so. That’s manageable. I can do that.

Not so much. Turns out each of these “episodes” is more like an epic-length film — we’re talking around 200 minutes apiece. And they’re so damn addictive that you can’t stop watching them. So there goes 13 hours of your life.
Maybe it’s fitting, then, that this series — which debuted on ITV in 1997 — has been called the “British Law & Order,” because who’s not addicted to Law & Order? The analogy doesn’t quite fit, though: while these stories do cover both the investigation of the crime and subsequent courtroom trial of the accused, they can also, by dint of their much longer runtime, delve much deeper into police procedural, which is absolutely catnip for crime geeks. If T&R lacks L&O’s snappiness, it more than makes up for it with its cool, suave smarts: it assumes you can keep up with the forensics, the tricksy psychology of police work, the shifting alibis of the suspects, and all the other myriad elements an actual police officer would have to keep straight in her head while trying to solve a crime.

It’s not an accident. In the only bonus material in the set (which is a step up from Acorn’s typical lack of extras entirely), series creator Lynda La Plante — this was her next project after the blockbuster cop show Prime Suspect — says that she set out to create a show that would give viewers “some intellectual input,” and that she hopes there’s a “learning curve” for each episode, regarding pathology or forensics or some aspect of police work. What, asking audiences to think? Wonderful! (Actually, never mind Law & Order: T&R is Prime Suspect meets CSI.)

In each of these four stories, which aired between 1997 and 2000, crotchety DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Mike Walker (David Hayman: Where the Truth Lies, Vertical Limit) and his smoothly unflappable sidekick DI Pat North (Kate Buffery) unravel a horrific crime — the kidnapping of a small child; a prostitute’s murder; a sinister stalking; a domestic homicide — though napping the bad guy never comes easy. Some of the red-herring sidetracks we’re led down are truly disturbing (one episode had me wondering whether a nine-year-old boy could have committed a terrible act), and the turns by guest stars such as Rhys Ifans, Richard E. Grant, and Iain Glen at their creepy best are downright nightmare-inducing.

Stylistically, too, T&R was ahead of its time: it occasionally uses a split-screen was innovative for the day, for TV (this was before 24!), allowing us multiple views on the action when often many important things are happening at the same time — keeping an eye on shifty gazes, for instance, during an interrogation, or watching a voyeur’s face and getting his menacing perspective at the same time. And while these early episodes of the series, which continues to this day in the U.K., were shot in the now old-fashioned squarish aspect ratio TV used to sport, the split-screens look especially good on a widescreen TV.

The DVD: Oops, I lied. There is another pseudo extra on Disc 4: a text-only Glossary that contains both general terms that apply to police investigations anywhere (“DNA,” “Pathologist”) but also IDs agencies and roles (“Criminal Case Review Commission,” “Solicitors and Barristers”) that are unique to the British system. I generally scoff at the idea that text-only anything counts as bonus material, but I’ll give this one a pass for its usefulness to American viewers.

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