Taking the lead
Legal drama is a bedrock of TV. So it was good televisual logic when in 2011 the ABC aired Crownies, 22 one-hour episodes following the lives of five young solicitors, fresh out of law school, working for the NSW Crown Prosecutors’ office.
Fans were stunned a second series was not commissioned.
”When the show finished, people came up to me,” says Marta Dusseldorp, who played senior Crown prosecutor Janet King, now a mother of twins with life partner Ash (Aimee Pedersen).
She says fans were confused about the show’s disappearance. ”I said ‘write’.” And, so, write the fans did. They also watched the show on the ABC’s iView platform and bought the box sets. One carload of unlikely fans even screamed ”Janet King!” at Dusseldorp while she was filming a Jack Irish scene with Guy Pearce on the streets of Melbourne.
The fans’ unrelenting enthusiasm paid off. ”The ABC realised that there was a good audience out there for Crownies,” producer Lisa Scott says. So the network commissioned a darker, shorter series set a year after the events of the original series.
Scott and her fellow producers promise that while returning fans will be rewarded, newcomers won’t be confused. ”When they decided they wanted the focus to be around Marta’s character, Janet King, that gave us a whole area to open up as a woman coming back a year after having her babies,” Scott says. ”What it means to be a good parent. That is something we explore.”
Producer Karl Zwicky agrees, comparing Janet King to Scandinoir series Wallander.
”When we finished Crownies, we knew so many ways this could continue and how many things were left unsaid at the end of the first series. It became the mechanics of ‘what format?’ Making it slightly more adult, slightly darker; focusing on the adult characters, bringing the police into it more, without changing the essence of what it was,” he says.
Dusseldorp took to her character’s new environment with ease.
”Janet in the last one was always dark,” she says. ”She was always dealing with horror. She didn’t have a massive sense of humour, so it’s not a big shift for me tonally. If anything, after a year with her children, she’s softer. She’s more willing to listen. More metered. Having had my own kids, you get a better sense of time and what matters once you have kids.”
She does feel more prepared for her role after three years away.
In the new series, her character’s family life bleeds into her professional life in more ways than one, as her allegiances to the law and her loved ones come into conflict.
”The first challenge was bringing her back and back from her family and then she’s torn away from that. And she doesn’t always play fair and I think that’s great,” Dusseldorp says. ”That scares me. I love it when I look at something and I don’t know how to play it.
”What I love is that she starts compromising, which I think is hard for Janet to do, but she has to. She has to bend her understanding of the law to get her family back. I resisted that at first – ‘Oh, they won’t like me’ – but I think it’s the greatest gift the writers have given me. Sometimes we do that as humans. We sacrifice something or someone to get back the thing we love.”
Janet King, ABC1, Thursday, February 27, 8.30pm.
Older and wiser Crownies tackle a new set of adult dilemmas
Anyone watching the ABC’s ”new” drama Janet King can be forgiven for initially thinking they’ve seen it before.
After Crownies aired in 2011 to mixed reviews and mediocre ratings, the ABC and production house Screentime vowed to re-engineer the drama about the public and private lives of lawyers working in the department of public prosecutions.
”Rather than say goodbye to everything, why don’t we take the best things that we know were working for the ABC audience, centre it around Janet, bring it back so it’s not so much episodic TV but a powerful, mini-series thriller and keep the same environment and character,” Greg Haddrick, a writer and producer on both shows, explains.
He admits the 20-something solicitors who were at the centre of Crownies were an attempt to make it attractive to a younger audience, but they did not wash with the older-skewing ABC audience.
There’s certainly a more adult tone to Janet King. In place of the young solicitors’ bed-hopping in Crownies, we watch Janet and her partner, Ash (Aimee Pedersen), adjusting to their twins.
Meanwhile, ”issue-of-the-week” court cases are largely set aside for a plot-twisty conspiracy rife with legal conundrums.
Bar the character played by Todd Lasance, who was unavailable when Janet King was filmed, all the central ”Crownies” return. Several new characters, including a dinosaur-like police chief played by Vince Colosimo and an aggressively opportunistic prosecutor played by Damian Walshe-Howling, join the cast.
Haddrick believes audiences are more attuned today to compact narratives with a central story arc than the episodic set-up of the 22-part Crownies.
”As runs of drama come down now, they tend to be like novels, where you tell one big story over six or eight hours. We felt we could explore some of the issues we were going to deal with better in that genre. Here, we could keep the dominoes falling over eight hours and, therefore, have more space to explore the issues.”
Haddrick says there was a collective decision from the outset to not make Janet’s same-sex relationship a story.
What makes Janet a character compelling enough to build a drama around is her moral compass and strength – ”a good leader, who questions what she is doing”, he says.
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