A Strange, Paranoid New Crime Drama
Accused turns a British series about the powerless into an exploration of anxiety among the privileged.
Whenever British TV shows are remade in the United States, they tend to undergo an uncanny glow-up: a smoothing-out of flaws, a shift in tone from pallid gray to vibrant gold, a wild uptick in the physical attractiveness of their stars. It rarely works, and almost never in crime drama—a key U.K. export—where drabness and despair are necessary textural elements, qualities that inform our understanding of not just how but also why people do the very worst things they do.
Accused, a BBC anthology series that’s been remade for American network television, is the newest example of an intriguing conceit lost in translation. The original, created by the veteran British writer Jimmy McGovern, presented itself as an exercise in moral deliberation: Each episode introduced a character, revealed the crime they were on trial for and the circumstances that led to their committing it, and then left the viewer to conclude whether their actions were justified. The show’s insistent focus on marginalized, working-class lives—single mothers, factory workers, people well below the poverty line—gave it a slyly radical undertone. When committing a crime is a matter of survival or social justice, Accused asked, is it actually the intractability of the system that’s morally indefensible?
Fox’s remake—from the writer and producer Howard Gordon (Homeland and 24)—doesn’t just ignore what made the original show so interesting; it inverts it entirely. Of the six episodes I’ve seen, four concern characters with considerable wealth and privilege, and a fifth is about a comfortable, happy middle-class family. It’s the kind of series in which the accused wear cashmere overcoats to court and hire legal teams that cost more than all of the mid-century McMansions in the background. Their crimes aren’t precipitated by hopelessness so much as by calamitous fate. If the original series was interested in how deprivation can grind you into making wretched decisions, the remake seems largely anxious about the random disasters that might strike, say, wealthy TV executives in Los Angeles, and how unfair it would be if they were held to account for how they responded.
I can’t argue that the original Accused was flawless, even if it had a lineup of British character actors—Olivia Colman, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Andy Serkis—that you might otherwise see together only at award ceremonies. But the show’s decision to prioritize the stories of perpetrators over police, and to forgo tidy endings, illuminated how little most detective procedurals actually think about the psychology of crime at all. Fox’s Accused cribs the setup, similarly assembling a fleet of well-known TV actors and directors, but not the sentiment beneath it: The U.S. series seems most interested in the types of outrageous, unsettling violations that disproportionately make the front pages. The first episode, “Scott’s Story,” is about a high-achieving neurosurgeon (played by Michael Chiklis) who starts to suspect that his son might be planning a school shooting. The episode queasily careens from twist to twist; the more we learn, the less we know. The attentiveness to plot also leaves little room for character development within the 44-minute run time, which makes the central idea seem more like an abstract moral conundrum—what actions are justifiable when someone might be planning to kill others?—than a fiercely personal, agonizing dilemma.
Watching the show gave me a twitchy paranoia I couldn’t shake, because its fictional universe is so vulnerable to the erratic forces of fate, like a Greek tragedy with ad breaks. Even in stories copied wholesale from the original, Accused amps up the extremes, favoring emotional horror over nuance. In one episode, which stars Rachel Bilson as a palliative nurse, a teenage boy is driven mad by the death of his mother and by his father’s very questionable decision to move his new girlfriend, his late wife’s caregiver, into the house. In another, a father (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) is urged by his friends to seek out and violently punish a stranger who sexually assaulted his daughter in the park. Both present cases in which people are kneecapped by fate into making terrible decisions, and their torment is turned—dramatically, disturbingly—into our entertainment.
The second episode, “Ava’s Story,” directed by Marlee Matlin, and the fifth, “Robyn’s Story,” directed by Billy Porter, make for high points in the series; one is a thoughtful, moving examination of deaf identity, surrogacy, and embracing difference, and the other offers the striking tale of an English teacher in Boston (played by J. Harrison Ghee) who performs as his drag alter ego, Robyn, by night, and begins an affair with a married man. Both episodes offer specificity and a sense of immersion that make their characters feel real. Matlin switches fluidly between scenes of spoken dialogue and scenes of silence to convey what daily existence is like for Ava (Stephanie Nogueras), why she’s so determined to define her own life, and why she’s so protective of others who are born deaf. Ghee’s performance and Porter’s exuberant direction make clear that drag as an art form is an exorcism of shame, a refusal to be marked by anyone else’s hate or fear.
The show’s occasional capacity for imaginative empathy, though, only makes its clunkier episodes harder to take. In “Billy’s Story,” Accused frames the opioid crisis as a tragedy plaguing a celebrity with infinite resources who can’t decide whether his son—who has a long-standing addiction to painkillers—would be better off alive or dead. The episode’s callousness is enhanced by its shapeless characters: a rock star with exacting standards, a son whose sense of failure fuels his monstrous behavior. The only surprise in the story is how certain it seems that addicts are unredeemable, how exhausted it is of empathy. When a judge explains in one scene that personal anguish isn’t the legal system’s concern, she’s only echoing what the episode has already offered: not ethical complexity, not understanding, but clear, familiar condemnation.