The Circuit: articles

Doing justice to courtroom drama

It seems a life sentence since a courtroom television drama made the ladies and gentlemen of the jury sit up and take note.

For the past 20 years, Law & Order has done a sterling job showing us dramatic due process while the increasingly bizarre Boston Legal took the gavel places where it had never been before.

Just when you thought the television networks were done with lawyering, along comes a drama which strips away all the trickery and glamour of the swanky TV legal eagles and makes you dare to believe there are those who want to fight for truth and justice.

On Tuesdays at 9.30pm, on its international night, Maori TV has brought us the excellent and refreshing new Australian legal drama series The Circuit. Made by SBS, The Circuit tells the story of how justice is delivered in the Kimberley Circuit Court. Courts are held in the tiny frontier towns of the far north in Western Australia, and in one scene a court is conducted al fresco in the middle of the bush.

The series opens with Drew Ellis, a smart, part-Aboriginal Perth lawyer who has decided to give something back to his people. His father, whom he barely knew, was one of the stolen children and Drew wants to reconnect with his blackness.

In the first scene of the show, Drew is driving along a red dirt road in his fancy car and fiddling with his iPod as he makes his way to his new destination. When he looks up a camel saunters across his path and Drew ends in a ditch after swerving to avoid the one humped dromedary.

Drew, played pitch perfectly by Aaron Pederson (Water Rats, City Homicide and incidentally voted Cleo Bachelor of the Year in 1994), arrives unceremoniously in town in a tow truck. When he tries to liberate his car from the tow yard by jumping a fence, he is arrested.

Court liaison officer Sam Wellen takes one look at Drew's car and laughs, telling Drew that when the law witnessed a black fella trying to get the keys out of his Beamer, of course they'd think he'd stolen it.

We meet the core cast at the pub on Drew's first night in town with the beautiful Bella, the town clerk singing with a band. Looking on is Archie, her gay court-reporting friend. There's also Ella, an East European middle-aged lawyer who's oh so jaded but still reporting for duty, and the magistrate, Peter Lockhart played by Gary Sweet (Stingers).

Even though Peter is Broome aristocracy, he is at pains to be seen as progressive in his sentencing, telling one recalcitrant youth that if he can stay out of trouble for a whole year he will give him a CD player.

This is greeted with disgust by Sam, who wants to see tribal elders dispensing justice rather than suffer the patronisation of the progressive Peter.

Drew's got a clever white lawyer wife in Perth working on a big case, and it looks like she won't be able to get away to join her other half for some time. Even their attempt at long-distance phone sex is thwarted, as she breaks off the steamy dialogue when her boss phone-us interruptuses them. You just know that's one relationship straining to break.

Drew watches the town from the windows of his spartan digs, the spinafex blows through the red dusty streets, and he wonders what he's got himself into. On his first day in court, he is handed a towering stack of files with no time to talk to his clients to work up a decent defence for cattle duffers, wife bashers, street drinkers, etc. How can Drew adequately defend his clients under these conditions when the cases are shunted through at such an alarmingly swift pace?

Most of the town thinks Drew is a "coconut" - a demeaning Aboriginal term for an Aborigine who's black on the outside and white on the inside, but by the end of episode one he's demonstrated in kangaroo court that he's not going to be the magistrate's creature.

Seldom has a first episode set up a series so powerfully and subtly, setting the stage for exposing cultural complexities without lecturing. Apparently, a second series of The Circuit is in production after a huge hiatus after the first. Terrific, this is the kind of television that people used to make before the formula men and women took over.

By Jane Bowron
April 17, 2010
The Dominion Post