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"Garrow's Law:" "Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system!"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | April 13, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | April 13, 2011 |

“Garrow’s Law” is a BBC production with one of those oddly designed schedules somewhere between a miniseries and an actual series. It’s had two series thus far, each composed of four one-hour episodes. A third series is slated to air sometime this year over in yonder British land, while the first series is currently running on PBS. It’s airing on Sunday nights after Masterpiece Theater, which is broadcasting a sequel to the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” if you just can’t get enough BBC period drama on your Sunday nights.

Set in eighteenth century London, the show is nominally a legal procedural. The protagonist is the titular Garrow, a young barrister who seeks to inject justice into a system fraught with injustice. Garrow is arrogant, self-righteous, and seems to think that justice could be done with just the proper amount of indignant yelling. And faster than you can retort “I can handle the truth just fine, quit yelling at me,” the show makes the wise decision of having this approach spectacularly fail in Garrow’s first case, in which a clearly innocent man is crudely set up for reward money and hung for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That experience convinces Garrow to actually do the leg work needed for a real defense in the future, leading to all manner of interesting historical asides.

While it is hardly a ground breaker strictly as a procedural, it makes up for it with a focus on history that is more than just playing dress up. The show’s time frame is situated on that cusp between medieval and modern, when notions we take for granted like innocent until proven guilty technically exist, but are mixed up with lingering brutalities from the ancient world. Defense attorneys are only involved if the sad bastard can pay, and even then are disallowed from calling their own witnesses, or even of seeing the evidence that will be presented. Trials can last as little as a few minutes, the witnesses are paid generously if a conviction is obtained, and sentences such as branding will occur right there in the court room to the cheer of the crowd.

But in focusing on the history, it unfortunately trips over some of the problems that competent procedurals have learned to avoid. Garrow has that clichéd defense attorney luck of generally only managing to trip over innocent clients. One could argue that this makes sense, after all part of the point of the series is demonstrating the injustice of that system, but on the other hand a more subtle series would give Garrow an endless series of guilty clients. It’s easy to argue that the system should be fair when it’s stomping on the helpless and innocent, but to really get at the nuance of the evolution of law one has to defend the principle of treating those who are certainly guilty with the same notion of fairness. The series hints at this, when it answers the question as to why a clearly guilty man deserves a defense at all, but usually seems content to merely remonstrate with horror at the treatment of the innocent.

But even if the series did this, it is missing one of the central complexities of legal reform of the time, the dark and twisted way of thinking that we think so terrible by modern sensibilities even as we slip back into it at times. It wasn’t simply that everyone arrested was assumed guilty. The prevailing logic of the time was that even if the arrested were totally innocent of the charge, the fact that they were suspected was evidence that they deserved some punishment. Even if one were to win the argument that trials should have all the safeguards of modern ones, of defense attorneys, disclosure of evidence, standards of evidence, even if the trial were to be made perfectly fair, one would still not have won the larger and more interesting battle.

The largest weakness of the series is in its continued subplot of Garrow’s relationship with a married upper class woman. Oh, they are all prim and proper and such, and their affair is of shared affinity for justice rather than illicit meetings by moonlight, but the controversies and accusations that arise from the story frankly distract from the overall direction of the show. And when you only have four episodes per season, there just isn’t enough slack time to waste on irritating b-plots.

Not only is the character of Garrow based on a historical figure, but all of the cases in the series are purportedly drawn from real cases from the era. And if you’re a catastrophic history nerd (and I know you are), then you will be interested to know that all of the case records for the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913 are online and fully searchable. Simply telling me that justifies this show’s existence in my mind.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.