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Accused, Series 1 & 2

Acorn Media // Unrated // October 28, 2014
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 4, 2014 | E-mail the Author
Accused (2010-?) is a unique anthology series, essentially a courtroom drama without the courtroom, one that's extremely ambitious and impressive as drama, but awfully depressing as entertainment. The show's format is at fault: episodes begin with the accused, a different character in each show, awaiting their verdict. Almost the entire rest of each episode is presented in flashbacks, devoted to the events leading up to each character's arrest, followed by a very brief scene where the verdict is finally read. The trials aren't shown, and the accused's solicitors and barristers don't interact with them, appearing only as extras when seen at all. It's less like Law & Order UK than Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) in both the good and bad sense.

The program was conceived and primarily written by Jimmy McGovern, best known for Cracker, the superlative crime series, one of the best ever, starring Robbie Coltrane. Accused has attracted a rather amazing array of talent, notably Christopher Eccleston (who frequently appears in McGovern's projects), Olivia Colman, Benjamin Smith, Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Sean Bean, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Anne-Marie Duff, and Marc Warren.

Six one-hour episodes aired in late 2010, with another four in mid-2012. Acorn's Accused: Series 1 & 2 suggests more will eventually follow (otherwise why not bill this as "The Complete Series?") though it has been more than two years since the last episode aired. And though it won numerous awards Accused's ratings have been low. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Series 3.

Accused might have been titled "Relentlessly Terrible Things Happen to Ordinary People." For starters, the TV audience is already made aware that by the end of the story the protagonist will be arrested and charged with a serious crime. Though some suspense is generated at the end, giving Accused a slightly cheesy, gimmicky air somewhat contrasting all the seriousness that came before it, the verdicts almost appear arbitrary. Oftentimes what seem like overly harsh sentences are given, rarely is the accused found innocent, and not always for the right reasons. Since the audience doesn't get to experience the trial, they have no way of knowing what evidence was presented, what legal arguments are made, how various witnesses came across in their testimony, etc. Only the judge's verdict is read.

Instead, Accused is mostly about miserable people suffering the weight of so much pressure and tragedy that, typically, they wind up committing one or several stupid things that land them in jail. In the pilot, "Willy's Story," for instance, Eccleston stars as a lapsed Catholic plumber in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The day he plans to tell his wife (Pooky Quesnel) that he's leaving her for another (married) woman, their daughter announces that she's getting married.

Willy puts off the separation until after the wedding, but then everything imaginable goes wrong. A client owing him a fortune goes bankrupt, causing a huge personal finances crisis for Willy as the wedding nears. His credit cards are declined, embarrassing him in front of the rich parents of his future son-in-law. He finds a sack containing 20,000 pounds in the back of a taxi but is so in debt he mulls keeping what he assumes is misplaced drug money rather than taking it to the police. This, in turn, only causes more problems and, eventually, his arrest.

That first show exemplifies the show's strengths and its basic weakness. Eccleston gives a superb, ultimately award-winning performance. The character he and McGovern have created is thoroughly believable and recognizably human and identifiable. He makes a couple of bad choices out of completely understandable desperation, tragedy results, and he pays a terrible penalty for his actions. But to what end, as far as the audience is concerned? As a cautionary tale? McGovern's Cracker was a show about similarly psychologically- and/or circumstances-scalded criminals, but through its titular character, a criminal psychologist as brilliant as he is self-destructive, that program not only provided great insight into human behavior, it also created drama without the foregone, mostly doomed dénouements Accused's format rigidly offers.

Similarly, some of the better American crime shows, Law & Order SVU for one, in not focusing exclusively on the suspects, who like those in Accused are typically flawed but ordinary people with a history of bad choices and/or at the wrong place at the wrong time, allows for more legal and inter-personal complexity without too much sacrifice to the human psychology behind it. Where SVU finds time to delve into complex legal quandaries while reflecting parallel problems and challenging the values and beliefs of its continuing characters, Accused is admittedly compelling and insightful but also profoundly despairing. Before ever committing crimes these are people whose children have been attacked or murdered or died due to negligent accidents, are undergoing nasty separations and child custody battles, broke and facing ruin, etc. The list goes on and on.

Along similar lines, Accused's most controversial episode, "Frankie's Story," follows a young thug's (Benjamin Smith) torturous experiences in the British Army fighting in Afghanistan, after being arrested and given a choice: sign-up or go to jail. There, his best friend (Ben Batt) is subjected to endless humiliation by his Corporal (Mackenzie Cook), eventually leading to the friend's suicide. Already feeling complicit in the friend's death, Frankie eventually murders the corporal. The episode is superb as a stand-alone drama, and Smith, Cook, and Robert Pugh as the dead boy's father all give outstanding performances. But while the show compellingly and expertly exposes the complex and disturbing psychology behind organized killing and battalion efficiency, viewers might be inclined to slash their wrists once it's over, so bleak is the portrait of human behavior it paints.

Video & Audio

Presented over four discs, the 10-episode run of Accused is up to contemporary television standards, the shows presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen and Dolby Digital stereo with optional SDH subtitles. In tiny print there is a note that "Due to music rights, this program has been modified for home video presentation" but, in the episodes I watched at least, this was imperceptible.

Extra Features

The only supplement is a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Parting Thoughts

Accused is an extremely well-made show but also one that's not likely to prompt a compulsive marathon viewing because of its relentlessly depressing stories. In many respects it's excellent but, boy, is it a downer. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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