Best of 2019 | #9 – Defending the Guilty

defending the guilty will sharpe katherine parkinson mark bonnar alex mcbride

I started watching Defending the Guilty because of Will Sharpe.

If you cast your mind back to this time last year – Theresa May was still in Downing Street, it feels like aeons ago – then you’ll remember, obviously, that Flowers was one of my favourite television shows of 2018. I raved and raved about it, about how brilliant it was and how much I loved it for being unlike anything else on television, and resolved to watch anything that Will Sharpe was involved with from then on.

Defending the Guilty, admittedly, is actually not entirely unlike everything else on television. It’s fairly easy to point to antecedents that it shares DNA with – the creators themselves have spoken a little about how they were influenced by both The Thick of It and Green Wing, and it’s not difficult to see how. Much like The Thick of It (a show I watched for the first time this year, actually), Defending the Guilty punctures the image we have of lawyers – it’s no more The Good Wife than The Thick of It is The West Wing, essentially. As creator Kieron Quirke put it, “lawyers on TV are presented as philosopher kings doing their damnedest against impossible odds, but the reality is [they’re] sort of morons”. That said, though, comparison to The Thick of It obscures what Defending the Guilty is like, at least a little. “The Thick of It but with lawyers” implies something far, far more caustic and acerbic than Defending the Guilty – which, in reality, is a far more charming, indeed often quite sweet, comedy than that analogy suggests.

The series focuses on a group of four trainee barristers in competition for permanent tenancy at the chambers, caught between strained friendship and obvious rivalry. Will Sharpe shines here as an awkward and empathetic lawyer coincidentally also named Will, but he’s just one brilliant actor amongst several. Katherine Parkinson is brilliant as Will’s rather more cynical mentor Caroline; if we’re running with the Thick of It comparison, she’d be the spiky Malcolm Tucker analogue (although, again, it’s much more complicated than that). At a certain point, I’m inclined to just start listing – Gwyneth Keyworth is so good; Hugh Coles is brilliant playing posh and substanceless; Mark Bonnar is having great fun – because Defending the Guilty really managed to put together a great ensemble. Much as I started watching it for Will Sharpe, I very much stayed for everyone else.

And, it goes without saying, Defending the Guilty is deeply funny. Often though that’s in quite an understated way – it’s far more willing to rely on the absurdity and general silliness of the law, rather than mile a minute dialogue with a punchline every other sentence. It works better that way: there’s a consistent, heightened humour maintained throughout, always very funny even if it has comparatively few laugh-out-loud zingers. (Not that it doesn’t have any of those, of course.)

Actually, speaking of its tone, that’s one of the things I most enjoyed about Defending the Guilty. Or, more specifically, how that tone manifested and was maintained: through the soundtrack. I loved the soundtrack – I took to it immediately, of course, but using my favourite Wolf Alice song in the third episode earned Defending the Guilty its spot on this list. I really mean that! At times it almost feels like they might be overdoing it – the needle drops come thick and fast – but then it becomes clear that actually, no, they know exactly what they’re doing. If anything defines Defending the Guilty, it’s the music (and it’s really, really good music).

Admittedly, the series isn’t perfect. I’ve spoken about it a few times over the past few weeks, and I’ve often highlighted the same problem: for a series largely predicated on the potential breakdown of Will’s relationship, nowhere near enough work goes into developing his girlfriend as a character. Indeed, she remains a cipher for most of the series, less a character in her own right and more of an accessory to the lead. You could sort of argue that’s the point – the series doesn’t have room for her much like Will’s legal career is pushing her out of his life – but that’s a slightly contrived defence of a fairly basic flaw.

Still, though. Defending the Guilty was a deeply charming little show: sweet and engaging, funny and introspective, all with a killer soundtrack. It doesn’t seem especially likely that it’ll make a lot of best of 2019 lists, but it was routinely one of the best parts of my week: if you can walk the line between self-assured silliness and thoughtful probing of cynicism and idealism in the justice system, playing Wolf Alice in the background, then you’re going to find a spot on my best of 2019 list.

I only just about managed to get this done in time, and even then it was a bit late – ideally this would’ve gone up in the morning, but you know, the election. In theory, tomorrow you’ll be able to find out my ninth favourite individual episode of television across 2019. I am reasonably sure I’ll be able to get something written on schedule.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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