Law & Order: UK debuts tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on BBC America.
Remakes of hits from other shores are fairly common. The Office has become a hit in over five countries, while the Ugly Betty format has hit in dozens. Going back even farther, many of the biggest hit American sitcoms of the '70s were reworkings of ideas the British had first. And that's to say nothing of the numerous shows that have crossed over from American production companies to foreign shores, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally (remember that brief fuss over the illegal Ukrainian version of The Big Bang Theory?). The thinking goes that a good idea for a TV show is going to be a good idea for a TV show just about anywhere, and taking the basic premise and giving it a new coat of paint to fit a little better with local customs will make a show that offers the best of both worlds, so to speak.
Literal translations of shows, however, are fairly rare, though the few that are out there have often been big hits. The Germans took Who's the Boss and translated the scripts, word for word, into German, then tossed some of their best comic actors at the problem and ended up with a show that was actually a bigger cultural sensation in Germany than the show ever was in the States. Even as most countries' versions of The Office branch out from the baseline set up by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, there's a tendency to use a local translation of the two's pilot script for the first episode. And the first season of In Treatment was literally the actors performing English translations of Israeli scripts, which made for some odd moments, like a segment where one character flew back overseas to fly a combat mission, then flew right back to the States for therapy. It made sense in Israel, but not as much on the Eastern seaboard.
All of which brings up Law & Order: UK, which rests uneasily somewhere between the two. It's a fairly diligent local reworking of the basic Law & Order format. There are still two sides to every criminal case. There are still talented actors playing the police and the "crown prosecutors" who try to place the criminals in jail (oh, those Brits, and their wacky names for things!). And there are still stories that have been ripped from the headlines and presented to the audience for our careful consideration. But the series also features scripts that have been reworked and rewritten from famous American episodes of Law & Order, and the effect is like watching a really skilled group of actors performing one of those stage play reworkings of a classic film. Because the basic structure and core idea of the episode are still there, it's going to feel to most Law & Order fans like they should know exactly how this plays out. And for the most part, it does, but then it will take little jags off into things that didn't happen in the original, but only slightly, like a little kid trying to relate the story of what happened in his favorite movie hours after the fact.
Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and the show's British producers have certainly spared no expense in making sure the series works as an Anglicized version of itself. The cast they've assembled is noteworthy, particularly to people who watch a lot of science fiction television, and there are great actors at every level of the production. Indeed, the new Law & Order: Los Angeles may have had bigger stars at virtually every level of the show, but the Law & Order: UK cast is probably better across the board with better chemistry. That can't help but benefit the new production. Similarly, the showrunner for the first batch of episodes, which begin airing tonight, was Torchwood scribe Chris Chibnall, and the script he writes for tonight's "Care" reworks one of the more famous early Law & Order episodes ("Cradle to Grave," where the landlord is found responsible for a baby's death) and gives it just enough twists and turns to make it feel less like reheated leftovers performed by rejects from the Royal Shakespearean Company than it probably should.
The cast, as mentioned, is terrific, anchored by Jamie Bamber (Apollo on the Battlestar Galactica remake), who does a surprisingly good turn on an old, old archetype, the young cop who cares too much about his work and too little about his personal life. And for those who used to watch the old Doctor Who/BSG bloc on SyFy when it was still called Sci-Fi, it will be entertaining to see Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones from season three of Doctor Who) turn up as an idealistic young prosecutor within the same episode. Between these two and Chibnall, it would almost seem to suggest that Law & Order: UK is taking an even more stripped-down, more genre-friendly take on the material, which is to say that a lot of it feels nicely gritty and noirish, particularly when Bamber and his colleagues investigate the seedier parts of London.
But there are plenty of fine actors in the cast besides the science fiction vets (though Bamber and Agyeman will likely be the ones best known to American TV audiences). In particularly, Harriet Walter and Bill Paterson turn in terrific performances as the bosses for the cops and crown prosecutors, respectively, and the guest cast is similarly good, from top to bottom, whether they be playing minor characters the cops talk to in their investigation or the owner of the crumbling building where that baby died. Everybody involved in bringing this story back to life is a champ, and that makes watching the leftovers slowly rotate around in the microwave more entertaining than it has any right to be.
But even though the cast is good and the script is solid and the direction is OK (with far too much shaky-cam for this sort of thing), there's still a sense of just watching something that was made before. It's not that the American version of this story was appreciably better; it wasn't. It was just newer, and there's the constant wish that in adapting the story to the United Kingdom, more had been changed than some cultural references and a few minor plot points (now, the baby dies from breathing in gas, not from the heat being out). There's a certain sense of idealism to the program, a sense that the institutions that uphold law and order are still essentially good and incorruptible things that no longer pervades the American version, which is far more world weary. Perhaps that general sense of good people doing good work will carry Law & Order: UK in more interesting directions. And yet, if one looks over the episode list for the show on Wikipedia, it's easy to see that the series has simply reworked many of the original series' most famous episodes. While that's probably better for the show's ratings and bottom line over in the UK, what happens when the writers aren't as strong as Chibnall? Simple, rote translations with cultural references changed and updated? That hardly seems as appealing.
But hey, many of the prosecutors wear crazy wigs. Those Brits! Always so wacky! So maybe that will be enough.