Blightyvision: “Eternal Law”

Written and created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah
Directed by Adrian Shergold and Jamie Payne
Starring Ukweli RoachSamuel West and Orla Brady

For the majority of my pre-college schooling, I was at the top of my class.  One day in fourth grade as an experiment, rather than turning in my usual caliber of homework, I put about as much effort in as the girl sitting next to me did.  When we got our grades back, she got praised for her hard work, and I got taken aside and asked if everything was okay at home.  No, I’ve not mistaken the WordPress dashboard for my LiveJournal again; I’m going somewhere with this.

“Eternal Law” is the post “Life on Mars”/”Ashes to Ashes” brainchild of Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, and it was announced not long after the “Ashes” finale.  It was going to be another genre-buster: a courtroom drama with angel-lawyers.  And coming from these guys, I had a good feeling.  But for the first episode or two, I had something of a flashback to fourth grade — and I realized that this is the TV writers’ equivalent of an A student turning in a B paper.  It’s still above average, and it’s still quite good, but you can’t help but wonder where their A-game went.

It’s a show that starts with a very clear focus: angels are sent to Earth in various mundane capacities to help humans.  We look in specifically on old hand Zak Gist (West) and former chorister Tom Greening (Roach) as the former leads the latter on his first mission: to serve as a pair of lawyers for hopeless cases in the lovely little town of York.  Greening is a wide-eyed Disney idealist who wants to see everything and help everyone, but Gist has seen everything, and his affection for humanity is (while still evident) far more tempered.  They’re overseen by Mrs. Sheringham (Brady, most recognizable as Walter Bishop’s wife in “Fringe”), an angel who has stepped down to mortal life.

Three things knot up Gist and Greening’s job, though: fallen angel and rival attorney Richard Pembroke (Tobias Menzes, recently Brutus of “Rome”); the presence of Hannah (Hattie Morahan), Gist’s abandoned lover from a previous job; and someone mailing our trio a doomsday clock that may or may not be real.  Mixed into all that are Greening’s repeated attempts to get as much as possible out of his time on Earth.

Thus, the format is fairly clear from the beginning … a case of the week riding up top, while a metaplot runs steadily underneath.  What wasn’t clear from the beginning was what “Eternal Law” wanted to be.  It felt for a while as though I was changing the channel between two shows — one upbeat and quirky, the other deep and introspective.  There was no tie between the two.  In its way, it almost felt like Gist and Greening were only tenuously connected, rather than working together as a team plot-wise.

However.  However. If I had to pick the thing Graham and Pharaoh do best above all, it’s creating interesting, likable (or hateable) characters.  We knew what sort of person everyone was from the get-go.  Greening had every chance to be utterly annoying and downright slappable, but he was as endearing as he was meant to be, and Gist had the right blend of good nature, cynicism, and “all the best lines” to make him a fun guy without him even coming close to being a port of Gene Hunt.  Now, Graham has straight-up admitted that Keats of “Ashes to Ashes” was an attempt to make sure a Pembroke character type got screen time in case “Eternal Law” wasn’t made.  But Menzes is his own actor with his own portrayal, so while there are certainly echoes, it didn’t feel (at least to me) like a deliberate lift.  Keats was underhanded and seething; Pembroke enjoys every second of his evil evilness like it’s his birthday.

“Eternal Law” had the same problem as “Bonekickers”: it got good late. This is fine for a show with an American run of 26+ episodes, where taking four or five episodes to find your feet is acceptable.  But a typical UK run puts writers at a disadvantage, where they’re almost required to be on the ball from the first second.  “Eternal Law” evolved, and it evolved well, and it went from being a B paper by an A student to being something with potential, something that knew what it was and where it wanted to go.  I already liked the characters by the end of the first episode, but by the  fourth episode, I legitimately did fall in love with the show as a whole.  It went from being “really not bad at all” to something I anticipated week to week.

And then it ended.  On a cliffhanger.

I have no idea if the numbers were good enough to warrant a second series.  Graham and Pharaoh are always going to run the risk of being judged more harshly for their writing because, hell, these are the guys who made “Life on Mars.”  You can hear them a mile away; their dialogue betrays them as much as Moffat’s or Whithouse’s.  We know they’re great writers with great ideas, and thus we expect their absolute best from them constantly.  There are plenty of other writers we do that to — and yes, we tear into them when they give us something quite good rather than earth-shattering.  This isn’t me being an apologist; it’s an Anglophile quirk, and one I was plenty guilty of during this viewing.

That’s my roundabout way of telling you to go ahead and watch it.  I don’t like to say that they’ve already written their masterpiece, because you just don’t know.  What I can say is, their good is better than many people’s best, and if you can take that into account, you’ll enjoy it.  It takes a bit to get going, but the road there is still entertaining.

“Eternal Law” gets a R2 DVD release this month.  No word yet on whether BBC America will pick this up, as there’s really no telling whether they’ll give us credit for knowing where York is.