Review: Guilt 1×1-1×2 (US: Freeform)

London, but not as we know it

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, Freeform
In the UK: Not yet acquired

There was a time when the US couldn’t make a programme set in the UK to save its life. Here’s just a shot from one of The Man From UNCLE‘s many episodes set in the UK (The Deep Six Affair), with Napoleon and Ilya driving around the British countryside:

The Deep Six Affair

Despite being back-projected in a studio and having Scotsman David McCallum on hand to point out mistakes, not only are the trees all Californian, but that’s a left-hand drive car.

Over the years, though, US TV has got better, even coming to the UK to film episodes that are set in the UK, with the likes of Friends, Elementary, Parks and Recreation, Lost, 24 et al all coming over to set ever more accurate episodes on our shores. This came to an apotheosis last year with the second season of Legends, a US show now set in the UK that was almost indistinguishable from a UK show:

So does that mean that the US has nailed it, that it can now make UK-set shows that we natives will accept as accurate?

Judging by Guilt, Freeform’s new murder-mystery soap set in London, the answer is a resounding no. With certain echoes of the Amanda Knox caseGuilt sees Daisy Head (The Syndicate, and daughter of Anthony “Giles from Buffy” Head) playing a US student studying in London who’s implicated in the murder of her Northern Irish flatmate. Things look increasingly bad for her, despite the efforts of the buff British rozzer who believes she’s innocent (Cristian Solimeno from Footballer’s Wives and Hollyoaks), so her sister, a Boston lawyer (Emily Tremaine from The Blacklist and Vinyl), comes over to help out, along with her step-dad (confusingly, Anthony “Giles from Buffy” Head). But with Tremaine not licensed to practise law in the UK, the family turn to the eccentric and fedora-clad disgraced US attorney turned UK barrister Billy Zane (The Phantom, Titanic, et al) to help them navigate the legal waters.

For UK viewers, the show is trapped in a certain ‘uncanny valley‘, being good enough that you focus on what it gets wrong rather than what it gets right. Despite its almost entirely British cast and copious London location filming, it gets a lot wrong indeed, mainly through imposing US ideas of legal systems, police, housing, clothing, trains, parties and London on a UK setting. Zane’s legal offices seem to be in an airy New York Brownstone, rather than in a squalid London barristers’ chambers; the CPS ‘prosecuter’ hangs around guiding police investigations; despite being licensed for law in the UK, Zane doesn’t seem to know about the differences in the right to silence et al between England and the US; university campuses look more like Harvard than UCL; warehouses look like they’re in Brooklyn; the Eurostar looks more like it’s on the way to DC; and WC1 flats look like they’re in Manhattan.

Head’s flatmate is allegedly from Northern Ireland (no one ever specifies where exactly, though), which gives us dialogue between her brother and the police/’prosecutor’ such as: “Are you kidding me? Care about a young girl from Northern Ireland? Your system has oppressed my people for centuries.” Erm, what?

Another big problem of Guilt is that it’s also quite clearly a TV show, one in the vein of Pretty Little Liars, and it imposes soapy US TV ideas on the real world, as well as the UK. British cops all sit around in airy offices with magic flat screen computers, have underlit interrogation rooms that wouldn’t pass the requirements of any of the Police and Criminal Evidence Acts, not even having voice recorders, and use magic computers to instantly take fingerprints. Tremaine, despite her supposed brilliance as an attorney, is actually stupendously awful even in the US, giving a closing summary in a murder trial that more or less consists of: “I bumped into a man this morning and spilt coffee. That was an accident. Murder isn’t an accident. You need to send this man to prison.”

When all of this intersects, it becomes disasterous. We have a strange sub-plot that implicates Head’s flatmate (and perhaps Head) in an Eyes Wide Shut-style prostitution ring that looks to involve not only lesbians but ‘Prince Theo’, who’s a bit into his bondage. Yes, of course the Royal Family are involved. Some things about US TV’s ideas of the UK will never change, it seems. 

I found the first two episodes of Guilt almost unbearable to watch, not just because of the bad UK but simply because it’s a bad, nay ridiculous drama. As well as the soapy flirting, sexiness, et al, the show’s creators have made Head’s character as transgressive as possible: she has an affair with her professor (apparently, you only get one of those at UK universities); slashes his car’s tyres, causing his wife to have an accident; can’t remember what happened the night of her flat-mate’s murder because she was too coked up; is caught on video attacking her flat-mate; and more. While arguably it’s an attempt to demonstrate that victim-blaming is wrong, you can’t use someone’s background as a reliable indicator of whether they’ve committed a crime and so on, it just means that she comes across as an astonishing idiot with whom it’s very hard to sympathise. 

Freeform? Free-from intelligence.

  • JustStark

    “Are you kidding me? Care about a young girl from Northern Ireland? Your system has oppressed my people for centuries.” Erm, what?

    No one with that attitude would call it 'Northern Ireland'.

    (Quite apart from the general terribleness of it qua dialogue)

  • Indeed. They could instantly have added about 50 IQ points to the entire show by saying 'a young Catholic girl' instead. But no.

  • JustStark

    It's have gone with 'Care about a wee girl from the Falls?' myself but hey.

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  • TBH, I'm not sure there are many English (or Scots or Welsh, for that matter) who'd get that. A bit too local maybe?

  • JustStark

    I'm a big believer in dialogue that rewards knowledge, while making the meaning clear in delivery & context, so I'm fine with it (that's basically 80% of The Wedt Wing, anyway).

    Besides, maybe it's just out of time — pretty sure anyone in England who watched the news twenty-five or thirty years ago would have heard of the Falls Road.

  • Falls Road I knew about. Falls = Falls Road then? Ta.

    Was it Paul Abbott or Jimmy McGovern who said he'd rather the audience were unsure about something for 15 minutes than have unnatural dialogue – so rather than having someone say “Hi bro!” “Hi sis!”, he'd rather you'd not have that and only later learn their relationship some other way? I think that's a good general philosophy, yes.

    Freeform, BTW, is what ABC Family used to be so is really aimed at the younger members of US society.

  • JustStark

    If I'd wanted to be wilfully obscure, I'd have written 'wee girl from Divis'…

    Either Abbott or McGovern could have said that and they'd be bang on.

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