Apr 142008

It’s been announced that a third season of Kingdom, the English show centered around fictional solicitor Peter Kingdom I earlier reported liking so much, has been commissioned for development later this year. However, while I still consider it a thoroughly enjoyable show, after watching the second season I’ve become aware of some cracks in its veneer, cracks which I hope will be patched before the next season is shot.

What tends to make so much English television, Kingdom included, better than many American shows is its greater reluctance to rely on clich├ęs, instead providing truer settings and letting the drama and characters develop more naturally. American entertainment is often so contrived — with artificial conflict, stereotypical personalities, stories that play to every public misconception, etc. — that it’s particularly refreshing to watch something from England that avoids such pitfalls.

But if Kingdom showed any weaknesses last season, it was in its weakening fortitude in resisting these predictable tropes. In some instances they snuck in connected to dramatic elements, like with the gratuitous introduction of boorish American military types in Episode 3 (an episode also plagued with cartoonish renderings of its own usually warm and rounded main characters), or the all-too-convenient plot device of a cataclysmic flood in the season finale.

But where I want to particularly focus is on its occasional, yet increasingly frequent, unfortunate and unnecessary over-simplifications of the law, a tendency which does a deep disservice to its characters, stories, and production generally.

To be sure, I still liked the show plenty. In this second season the family drama percolating under the surface during the first finally came to the fore, but I appreciated how it didn’t completely drown out the episodic drama or series-long character development. In fact, I particularly appreciated how certain supporting characters, like Peter’s sister Beatrice and also his law clerk Lyle respectively gained quite a bit of maturity. Perhaps it’s a product of my own situation, being closer in my career to where Lyle is in his than to where Peter is, that it cheered me so deeply to see Lyle handed opportunity and responsibility and then thrive. By the end of the second series he becomes fully-licensed, and as strong a figure as Peter ever was.

Peter, on the other hand, may turn out not to be quite the lawyer I at first thought him to be:

He is clearly someone who loves and respects the law, who sees it as a positive tool for achieving justice. His mission as a lawyer is to help people use it. He is a good man, and it is comforting to see him exude a sort of quiet, honorable power as he uses his skill as a lawyer to solve people’s problems.

As a lawyer, how I want that to be true. And it is, largely. But as season two unfolds (although on retrospect it was probably also evident in season one) we see that Peter has some blindspots. While the character of solicitor Peter Kingdom is generally noble and patient with downtrodden clients, he also has something of a mean streak. True, he has some extremely difficult clients, as all the village idiots seem to look to him to solve their problems. But his inclination to advocate zealously sometimes seems to be tempered by his barely hidden contempt for them as well.

But on reflection I decided I don’t consider it a defect of the show. Peter can be paradoxical, and perhaps that just improves the drama. In fact, the final episode of the second season explored his inconsistency, as he was accused by friends and family of not being nearly as perfect as he believed himself to be. And certainly there’s nothing about having a show with an imperfect lawyer that rings false.

Still, there’s limits to how much dramatic license the show can take before our ability to measure Peter as a lawyer, or even as a man, is undermined. Dramatically it is quite a different thing for Peter to get the law wrong than it is for the scriptwriters. While as a non-UK lawyer I’m clearly poorly equipped to recognize when the law either is or is not being reflected faithfully, I can still note differences in how the law is invoked in each script, which ultimately I think can be quite telling in terms of its probable accuracy. For instance, I’ve noticed that in the scripts written by series co-creator Alan Whiting, the law is evoked with so much specificity that it almost seems too far-fetched to believe it not largely correct.

But in episodes written by other writers (see, e.g., Episode 3), the results are much more mixed. The law is invoked in clunky, monolithic, and stereotypical ways. Granted, maybe some of what prickles me may actually be due to differences between American and English legal practice. Perhaps in England, for example, it really is a violation of legal ethics to represent one’s own sibling in a criminal matter. While in America the surrounding circumstances could be too fraught to make it advisable, such representation is by no means so forbidden in any jurisdiction I’m aware of. But even if the script correctly invoked current English legal doctrine on that point, it did so too superficially to be plausible. Peter is faced with a sibling in dire need of his services — and simply dismisses all possibility of representation with one throwaway line about its suspect ethics. It’s a line that may not have even have been true, but even if it were, it was completely inconsistent with how Peter’s character was earlier established for him to have dispensed with this ethical quandary so easily.

Then again, the show raises and dispenses with a lot of ethical issues way more rapidly than it should. At one point, for instance, while Peter is away Lyle ends up in a scheme where he and the secretary’s son decide to advertise free quotes on will drafting, a scheme that backfires over a typo in the ad but naturally gets perfectly cleaned up due to Lyle’s admirable resourcefulness. Yet had such a scheme arisen anywhere in the US, both Lyle and Peter would have ended up in enormous trouble involving unlicensed practice of law by a not-yet-qualified lawyer (and a pre-teen!) and facing inquiries at minimum involving professional discipline and potentially also of criminality. Hardly issues to sneeze at, and yet in this episode they essentially were. Maybe England is less a stickler over these matters than American bar authorities, but somehow I don’t think it’s quite that laissez-faire. It also seems very illogical for the show to have made such a big deal about the likely non-existent ethical hang-ups involved with the representation of the sibling and yet no fuss at all about the much more clean cut problems involving legal practice.

On the other hand, like with the sibling representation there have been other instances when Peter admitted surrender on a legal issue a little too quickly to be believable. Even in the first series there’s an episode where a fisherman can’t get his insurance company to compensate him for his wrecked boat by virtue of him having deliberately scuttled one twenty years earlier. Because of that history, Peter tells him, the insurance company will never believe that he didn’t scuttle this one. Yeah, but so what? Despite the history, which they knew about, they still collected his premiums, having charged him double for the higher risk, and then instead of salvaging the boat to investigate the cause of its destruction, they simply denied his claim. According to Peter, there was no recourse, but as an American lawyer that pronouncement seems strange. Surely there’d be some sort of action for breach of contract, bad faith dealings, unjust enrichment, or one of the many other common law causes of action we inherited from England… The idea that Peter spent all night poring over law books, unable to find anything to help his client, seems preposterous. Naturally as a practical matter he might have advised his client that the fight would be difficult and expensive, and perhaps not worth it in the long run, but because the thematic development of the episode required the cause of action to be legally impossible, that’s what the script artificially caused it to be.

It’s that growing sense of artificially that has me concerned about the quality of the show. What has made it so good in the past was that it did seem so natural and authentic. Characters could grow and good stories could be told, set against the twin backdrops of Norfolk and legal practice. The show’s producers at least understand the importance of the Norfolk setting, shooting it on location in a quaint brick and timber Norfolk village rather than some sterile soundstage in the city. But just as they never would try to whitewash Norfolk’s ancient brickwork, they similarly shouldn’t whitewash the legal issues the show confronts. The law is just as an important part of the show, and needs to be treated with the same care and respect.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm

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