Mix in sex, lawyers and plenty of attitude Review: 'This Life,' debuting on BBC America cable, does a good job with 'Friends'-MTV-style drama.

November 16, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

How's this for hard sell from our so-called more refined British television brethren? It's the BBC America press release for "This Life," a Brit series about twentysomething lawyers making its American debut tonight on cable.

" 'This Life' is must-see TV, a cross between 'Friends' and 'Ally McBeal' -- with attitude and 'NYPD Blue' style camera work."

And that's just the warm-up. The release goes on to quote Amy Jenkins, creator of the series, saying, "Our five main characters may be lawyers and professionals, but they're not afraid to swear, take drugs, have lots of sex and watch lots of football 'This Life' has been compared to the U.S. sitcom 'Friends' -- both are about a group of young people sharing a house -- but the similarity ends there. 'Friends' characters have designer problems. My characters have real problems."

Oh, how I would love to shoot out the promotional headlights of the puffed-up BBC press department and the superior Ms. Jenkins. Wouldn't mind knocking a chink or two in the rock of conventional wisdom that says British television is so much smarter and deeper than ours.

But, you know what? "This Life" is almost as good as the hype. I've seen only two episodes, and already I'm hooked.

The BBC is wrong about its looking like "NYPD Blue." Visually, it has more in common with MTV's "Real World" -- the pseudo-documentary series in which a group of young people is paid to live together in a great house and let MTV film them for a year. Here it's five friends, one household, no rules. They're working on the rules, though.

All five work as attorneys. Two have graduated to the rank of solicitor, which means they are allowed to practice in the lower English courts. The other three are serving an apprenticeship after graduating from law school.

Using the overwrought language of the folks at BBC, there's Miles (Jack Davenport), "arrogant, immature, selfish and successful a Greek tragedy waiting to happen."

L Anna (Daniela Nardini) is "smart, shocking, sexy and drunk."

Milly (Amita Dhiri) is "ambitious, intense, uptight and always in the bath."

Egg (Andrew Lincoln) is "soccer-crazy, sensitive, confused and fragile."

Warren (Jason Hughes) is "honest, caring, gay and in therapy."

Milly and Egg are an interracial couple. They have been together five years. She's East Indian, he's English. She's a rising star at the law firm, he's an intern on the verge of termination for his lack of interest in the law.

Anna and Miles once slept together in law school. She's still got a thing for him. But Miles, well, Miles sleeps around. And Anna often has to listen to him sleeping around since her room is directly under his.

The sex is graphic by American television standards. "This Life" carries an M rating for mature. In the second episode, Miles picks up a woman Anna had been defending against fraud charges. The woman is a bad-news druggie, but Miles and she wind up in bed, and we get to hear it all, right along with Anna. We also get to see it -- a naked Miles and all. No soft-focus, dissolve to "good-morning-honey" shots here.

The language is rough by American TV standards, too. They blip the strongest of the four-letter words, but there is no chance anyone above the age of 8 will have any trouble figuring out what is being said -- and said often.

Why do I so like the series?

Social class, for one thing. To watch American TV is to be told that we are all from the same, happy, vast, upper middle class. "This Life" not only acknowledges class differences, but also the fact that they result in vast differences of opportunity.

In Episode 2, Egg mocks Warren for taking work home from the office. Warren responds: "My father works in a factory. My mother works in a department store. I come from a small town -- a very boring small town. And, I'm very sorry about this, but I'm actually grateful to be here [at the law firm] and not there."

"This Life" is also not afraid to offend some viewers in letting the characters speak their minds. Tonight's pilot ends with Anna and Egg sitting on a park bench outside a posh apartment where one of the partners is throwing a party.

After laughing at the 50-year-old partner for thinking he's sexy in his Porsche, Anna says, "These days, only the old can afford to be young."

Egg's laughter eggs her on.

"Brace yourself, boy, I'm going to say something really subversive now," she says. "Are you ready?"


"The Beatles were really boring. See, I haven't been struck down. There is no God. If there was, you know he'd be into the Beatles. And those haircuts! What was that?"

"One thing about older people," Egg says. "They'll die before we do."

Being 49 and one of the old people whose impending death convulses Anna and Egg in laughter, I suppose I should be offended. But I'm not. In fact, I'm hooked on their lives like none other on American TV save the gang at "Homicide."

Maybe it's not a "cross between 'Friends' and 'Ally McBeal,' " as the BBC hype machine claims. But it does have attitude.

New series

What: "This Life"

When: Today, 11 p.m.-midnight

Where: BBC America cable channel

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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