It's not really fair to call "Law & Order: UK" a 'spinoff' from the American "Law & Order", considering that all the scripts are reworked from those written for the original show. It has more the feel of a 'remake'. Yet writer Debbie O'Malley manages to turn "Prescription for Death", the very first episode broadcasted on NBC all those years ago on 13th September 1990, into a story that's highly relevant to 2010s Britain, taking in hospital jargon, NHS bureaucracy and good old mistaken identity.
Marisol Adler, having worked on the original show as a director on the later seasons, has the franchise's trademark shaky camerawork down pat - and it shows. This series five opener begins with a chaotic tracking shot of hospital beds crashing through the double doors at Accident & Emergency, in a fashion as reminiscent of Dick Wolf's brainchild as of that other NBC long-runner, "ER". We soon focus in on a lone case, Suzanne Morton, who is quickly dispatched and declared dead in the typical "Law & Order" way, even though her dad protests she was only admitted with a sore throat. The concerns of a nurse over the alarming rate of suspicious deaths at this particular ward prompt her to consult DI Natalie Chandler (Harriet Walter), who in turn calls on DS Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh) and DS Matt Devlin (Jamie Bamber) to investigate. Medical malpractice, a doctor drunk on the job and incompetent interns are soon uncovered.
I criticised the first series of "Law & Order: UK" for its terribly treacly pacing, and I'm pleased to say this edition is much slicker, better capturing the sense of grittiness that seemed lost from the Manhattan show in the first few British translations. Bamber and Walsh's repartee is a treat as ever, in the tradition of great detective pairings like Briscoe and Logan, while Walter is a comfortable centre of gravity, nicely holding the proceedings together; Freema Agyeman is capable but not given an awful lot to do - her character could be a little more forthright and opinionated as we've seen on previous occasions but not such that it drags the show down into heavy moralising. London locations are used well, without having to resort to the seemingly irrelevant practice on "Law & Order: LA" of naming entire episodes after locales or neighbourhoods: a chase scene through the concourse of St. Pancras International rail station is a standout moment.
As with any "Law & Order" show, we should expect a 'revolving door' of cast changes - on the mothership, police and prosecutors changed hands with alarming efficiency - and so it is with the British incarnation, which sees its first batch of replacements this season. I'm not really sure what to make of Peter Davison as Henry Sharpe at this point. He seems avuncular enough as befits a CPS director presiding over his underlings' prosecutions - even a little witty - but of course the same could be said of his predecessor, Bill Paterson, or Steven Hill on the original. But I do prefer Dominic Rowan over Ben Daniels. While Daniels frequently recalled the on-edge, maverick and emotionally-involved Jack McCoy (and seemed as though he was trying too hard to imitate Sam Waterston with his melodrama), Rowan more closely resembles the practical Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) in his prosecutorial methods, interrogating Dr. Edward Auster (James Fox) on the stand with calculating precision and coolness. I'd like him to have more of Stone's authoritative presence in the courtroom and combine that with some of the rogueish intensity Linus Roache had as Michael Cutter.
This is indeed a significant improvement on previous outings of "Law & Order: UK", and I'm looking forward to see how the show develops with the new regulars to contend with. Now, if only the producers could really realise its potential by offering us completely new stories instead of relying on old American scripts, no matter how well re-interpreted they are.