The camera pans over our protagonist in the early morning, as hazy streetlights dimly illuminate a block of flats. A couple of hooded figures skulk by the bike racks, attempting to brazenly extract their contents. The disembodied voice of a radio broadcaster discusses cuts to legal aid. For a tantalising moment, it seems that this adaptation of Alex McBride’s thought-provoking book might evoke the gritty realism of Ben Drew’s Ill Manors.
What in fact follows, is a breezily millennial take on life at the criminal bar, as we follow erratic junior pupil Will, over-ear headphones and latte in hand, as he pursues the increasingly elusive prospect of tenancy. As awkward as his namesake from The Inbetweeners, Will shuffles along behind his pupil-master Caroline. She’s a refreshing antidote to his naivety, comfortable with defending the guilty of the show’s title, and obsessed in equal measures with pastry and a burning desire to win in the court room. Things quickly get weird as she seems to view their relationship as a bizarre reversal of the Oedipal complex, describing Will as her ‘hot pupil’ and sending him back to chambers for a laptop charger because ‘mummy needs her power’.
Will’s competitors for tenancy drag a range of clichés, howling, from the vaults. Pursuing the ladies on a night out, foppish Liam looks to ‘stalk the prey’ at the pub. Sassy Pia relishes the nickname ‘Hot Robot’, whilst Danielle is seemingly designated as working class by virtue of a clutch of swear words and a South-Walian accent. Will’s clients are similarly unbelievable. Mike sounds so much like Ray Winstone my mind was actually overdubbing his scenes with dialogue from a Bet365 advert. When Will offers mitigation to help young tearaway Gracie avoid custody, what could have been a poignant moment is rendered as pure farce. She rewrites his submissions, reeling off references to Dickens and Carol Ann Duffy, then returns at the end of the show to help rob him after work. And that’s before we even start on Will’s unwitting romance with a juror, and his cringeworthy retelling of the encounter to a judge the following morning.
Defending the Guilty lacks the chemistry, surrealism and heart that made other workplace comedies such as Scrubs so successful. Despite boasting an enviable soundtrack, featuring Grimes, alt-J and Fischerspooner, the real problem for this light-hearted sit-com is that the humour just doesn’t pack a punch. With the above in mind, it seems churlish to comment on other inaccuracies that abound, such as Will's determination to 'find the real killer' when the charge is later revealed as attempted murder, or the public discussion between the defence and prosecution in a court corridor which focuses on the identity of a covert source.
Sentencing? Conditional discharge: must do better next week.