The Escape Artist, PBS’ latest BBC import for its Masterpiece Mystery series, is a tricky show to pin down. Over the course of its two 90-minute episodes—slightly reedited from its original format, a trio of hour-long episodes—the David Tennant-starring miniseries shifts between slick legal thriller and grief-stricken character study, before eventually pivoting toward an exploration of psychosis and criminality that sits somewhere between an Alfred Hitchcock movie and a Criminal Minds episode. Series creator and sole writer David Wolstencroft is primarily concerned with exploring the role that criminal defense should play not just in the justice system but in society at large, and The Escape Artist’s considerable tonal shifts and weirdly structured timeline—it’s casually mentioned late in the second episode that a seemingly brief section of the story actually transpired over six months—are all deemed necessary to serve those larger thematic goals. As the protagonist, hotshot criminal defense barrister Will Burton, observes at one point, and later has thrown back at him, “Everybody deserves a defense.” The implication is that The Escape Artist intends to evaluate whether that sentiment is really true, but the miniseries’ lack of narrative coherence means it can’t help but lose focus.
Despite its presence in the long-running Masterpiece Mystery series, The Escape Artist emphatically stands outside the mystery genre. Instead, this is a legal thriller in which everyone who is charged with a crime is probably guilty. The key word there is “probably,” because, for all the crimes that are committed over the course of this miniseries, none of its characters ever provides the audience with that gold standard of crime show evidence: a confession. Everybody insists on their innocence—or, perhaps more accurately, their non-guilt—both in court and in private. This ambiguity can appear trivial, even nonexistent, as the miniseries provides overwhelming proof of what actually happened at its various crime scenes. The audience knows damn well who is and isn’t guilty, but the withholding of that last bit of absolute confirmation speaks to a crucial idea of The Escape Artist: Knowing something to be true and proving it as such are two very different things. As presented here, there’s never any reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty, but there is always some tiny, infinitesimal particle of doubt, however unreasonable, and skilled defense barristers can extract exonerations for their clients from the most unlikely of sources.
At its core, the miniseries explores the evolving relationship between Will and his onetime client Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell). Initially accused of the heinous murder of a young woman, Foyle is essentially an off-the-rack psychopath. He lives in a big creepy house with only birds for company, and he spends a decent chunk of his pre-trial conversations with his lawyers spouting unnerving, pseudo-philosophical nonsense. His every action, every word, and every mannerism all scream his guilt, except that he defiantly insists on his innocence, and that means he is entitled to a defense. For all Will’s misgivings about Foyle, nobody is better equipped than him to provide that defense; the show’s title comes from his Harry Houdini-like ability to find whatever technicality, loophole, or seemingly unimportant prosecutorial blunder that might enable him to exonerate his client. Irrespective of the real-world accuracy of Burton’s legal escapology, his courtroom stratagems make for some of The Escape Artist’s most inventive, compelling sequences, so it’s rather disappointing that they constitute only a minor portion of the overall story.
Instead, a tragedy that occurs about an hour into the first episode forces the story in a very different direction, as Will’s life is altered irrevocably. There’s nothing wrong with what The Escape Artist turns into at this point, but the show effectively has to swap its initial, law-focused story, one it hasn’t had time to fully develop, for another, more intimate story that it also doesn’t have time to fully explore, before again morphing into a broader, more suspenseful tale. There are other dramas out there that are just examinations of the legal system or just meditations on grief or just taut psychological thrillers. The Escape Artist can only establish these stories and explore them in rudimentary fashion; Wolstencroft’s script struggles to show the audience anything it hasn’t seen before in these familiar scenarios. Worse, The Escape Artist becomes dangerously messy in its storytelling, and that’s particularly troublesome when its complex, intellectual themes require careful, rigorous plotting. Enough of the miniseries’ big ideas shine through the clutter for the result to be moderately compelling, but there’s the unmistakable sense that Wolstencroft could have made his arguments more clearly and more forcefully if he didn’t have to stretch what really ought to be a single story out over a whopping 180 minutes.
Even so, there are advantages to The Escape Artist’s considerable length, and much of that can be traced back to the performances. As Liam Foyle, Kebbell innately understands the miniseries’ refusal to declare itself in absolute terms; his performance is openly villainous, yet he’s careful to leave just enough room to allow for moments of ambiguity. Still, The Escape Artist indisputably belongs to Tennant. As Will Burton, he finds the living, breathing human buried underneath the rote storytelling. Burton’s introductory scene, in which he clambers into a London cab while conducting a business call, suggests he’s a standard-issue workaholic type, but later scenes allow Tennant to paint Will as something more complex; his absurd work schedule does mean he misses some of his son’s big moments, but he’s still a committed family man who enjoys a genuinely happy, loving relationship with his wife. Coming off career-best work in last year’s Broadchurch, Tennant mines similar depths of anguish and despair, but Will Burton is never as dour or grim as DI Alec Hardy; Tennant is genuinely funny on the rare occasions that The Escape Artist lets him crack a joke. As an actors’ showcase, The Escape Artist is a distinct success. The fact that that very clearly was not its primary artistic goal only matters so much.