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McNamara's picks: 'Silk,' Al Jazeera America, 'The Newsroom'

August 22, 2013|By Mary McNamara
  • Jeff Daniels in 'The Newsroom.'
Jeff Daniels in 'The Newsroom.' (Melissa Moseley / HBO )

"The Good Wife" meets "Law and Order: UK" in "Silk,"  the six-hour, three-episode series debuting on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" on Sunday night.  As host Alan Cumming helpfully explains in the first-night intro, "Silk" refers to the prestigious position of Queen's Counsel -- in British court, these high-ranking barristers wear gowns of silk (also those crazy wig hats.)

Applying for silk is one Martha Costello (Maxine Peake), a passionate defense barrister who, like any good television lawyer, has made the law her life.  Idealistic yet pragmatic, Martha firmly believes that providing a strong defense for even the most larcenous, mendacious and generally suspicious of the population is the keystone of justice.

"The most important words in law are 'innocent until proven guilty,' " she tells Nick (Tom Hughes), the callow but light-fingered student pupil assigned to her in the premiere episode.

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Before she can make silk, she has to impress the powers that be and negotiate the power politics of Shoelane Chambers. In the U.K., barristers who argue matters in court are hired by solicitors, who oversee criminal cases; instead of a law firm, they work in groups called chambers. (If nothing else, "Silk" provides a primer to the British law system in a way "Law and Order: UK" never does. At Shoelane, case assignments are overseen by senior clerk Billy Lam (Neil Stuke), who has two barristers in the running -- Martha and the charming but wily Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones), who has all of Martha's ambition and none of her sense of fair play. 

None of which is as predictable as it sounds. Creator Peter Moffat ("Criminal Justice") is a playwright and a former barrister, and it shows. Narratively and thematically ambitious, each episode of "Silk" follows at least two hot-button cases -- drug mules, young prostitutes, non-stranger rape -- while exploring the dilemmas of a defense barrister and the perils of being true to one's self and professionally successful. More important, Moffat and his deep bench of talented performers create characters who defy expectation and grow in complexity with each episode. PBS, Sundays, 9 p.m.

Al Jazeera America. After watching its magnificent coverage of the "Arab Spring," many Americans, including this one, began clamoring for access to Al Jazeera on local television. Others, put off by the fact that the network, funded by the government of Qatar, had televised Osama bin Laden videos, felt otherwise. Al Jazeera America is the compromise.

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Available on most but not all carriers, it is focused, rather zealously on national news -- it has opened 12 bureaus around the country -- the nascent news network promises "old-fashioned" television news coverage, i.e.  in-depth and unbiased.

It isn't often one can watch the birth of a network, much less one with so much political baggage. With a host of respected journalists anchoring diversely focused shows -- money matters, investigative pieces, social media -- Al Jazeera seems well-equipped to transcend obstacles both external and self-inflicted while offering news junkies an alternative to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Al Jazeera America, all day, on the network formally known as Current TV.

"The Newsroom." After a frenetic to the point of unintentionally comedic first season, the Aaron Sorkin drama opened this year with a more controlled, and controllable, story line.

Early episodes flashed forward to the aftermath of the ultimate news show disaster -- the folks behind "News Night " ran a false story that accused the United States government of using sarin gas. Anchoring the continuing personal (which is to say romantic) story lines of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and all the rest is the story of how the mistake was made.

Last week's episode may have, a bit unfortunately, relied on an intentional flouting of basic journalistic rules, but this week promises to reveal the moment all is revealed and it all hits the fan. Intentionally or not, "The Newsroom" has never been a cliff-hanging kind of show, but it's hard not to feel anxious about what will happen next. HBO, Sunday nights, 9 p.m.


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