Lately I have found myself drawn to programmes about lawyers on a righteous mission. First it was US hit ‘The Good Wife’. Now it’s the turn of British supernatural legal drama ‘Eternal Law’, which has just concluded it's first series on ITV1. The show follows the adventures of a team of celestial beings taking on temporal bodies to pose as barristers with a conscience.
Samuel West plays the irreverent, quite literally world-weary main angel Zak Gist. He’s been assigned an indefinite mission to planet earth and is just a tad jaded. It doesn’t help that on a previous assignment he fell in love with a mortal woman, Hannah (Hattie Morahan), got distracted and nearly lost his wings in the process. He harbours some resentment towards Mr Mountjoy (or God to the rest of us) for making him choose between his earthly love and the greater purpose. Gist opts for the latter and gets a new body to go with his latest mission. Just when he thinks he’s back on track Hannah reappears, unaware of Gist’s new identity, as an unwitting temptress.
Zak is tasked with looking after pretty boy novice Tom Greening (get it?), played by Ukweli Roach, who has just crash landed to earth. Tom is the typical doe-eyed ingénue, at first completely in awe of the novelty of being amongst mortals, only to realise life on terra firma is not as simple as he’d presumed.
Overseeing them all is Celtic Milf Mrs Sheringham (Orla Brady), herself a former angel who, when faced with the same decision as Gist, chose romance, lost her wings and then her beau, Billy, to cancer swiftly afterwards. Rather than wallow in bitterness like Zak, Mrs Sheringham prefers to live with her choice to throw her lot in with mankind and does the best with the hand life has dealt her. She is however very keen to make sure no other angels repeat her mistake. Planet earth couldn’t afford another one of God’s messengers to get sidetracked.
Of course no story about the cosmic battle between good and evil would be complete without a dark element. Cue stage left urbane fallen angel Richard Pembroke, played to dead-eyed, malevolent perfection by Tobias Menzies. He works for a rival chambers and also happens to be Hannah’s boss. This handsome, smug and unnervingly tactile Mephistopheles is only too happy to dangle Zak’s past failures in his face, when he’s not trying to discourage newbie Tom from his just cause.
Theologically ‘Eternal Law’ is a mixed bag. There are a lot of biblical references and imagery yet no mention of Jesus as Messiah or salvation through faith by way of God’s grace. Redemption as it’s referred to here comes through works-making better choices, restitution, eventually doing the right thing. Gist’s cynicism towards Mr Mountjoy at times verges on the blasphemous and so far the Holy Spirit hasn’t even got a look in.
Nevertheless from a Christian perspective ‘Eternal Law’ still provides some very satisfying food for spiritual and intellectual mastication.
In Zak’s choice to persevere with the eternal mission, at the cost of his own temporal happiness, we see reflected a decision that those sincerely engaging in the Christian faith face every day. So, Gist is a little begrudging in his devotion to Mr Mountjoy. But he’s still there, sticking it out. This strikes a pitch perfect chord with me. The kind of heartache that comes with the territory can be so overwhelming, that I find myself constantly wrestling with the idea of God as a consistently loving Father. I can identify with some of Zak’s resentment; that sense that maybe the Almighty is trying to catch us out. Many a child of God is familiar with the battle that rages between pleasing oneself and doing what pleases God. Yet even if it’s done with reluctance, I believe the act of obedience is precious before God; maybe even more so if the decision has been made with great difficulty.
I’m not a proponent of the notion that Christians must tackle trials and tribulations with a perpetual rictus grin. Let’s be sincere. Suffering would not be an effective tool for either God or the devil if it wasn’t bloody painful. Christ Himself during his earthly mission ran the full unedited gauntlet of human emotion; disappointment, grief, surprise, elation, fear, hunger... Jesus wept and so will we. Even trying to do the right thing can appear to pay bitter dividends in the short term. This is where ‘Eternal Law’ really gets it right. Focusing on the long term big picture takes conscious effort. The right thing to do is rarely the easiest. God will not always remove temptation from our midst. More likely we will have to press through it, bloodied and scarred, wearing our battle wounds for all to see.
Neither does it mean we can’t be effective vessels of kindness and good will because we struggle with our weaknesses. Gist’s acerbic quips scarcely mask his ready compassion and for all his drooling over Hannah and fist-shaking at the Supreme Being, he remains a loyal servant. The show celebrates the redemptive power of forgiving and being forgiven, of making amends and placing the needs of others before our own.
Greening could be an allegory for the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed young believer who sees everything in black and white before a few tricky life lessons reveal the very many shades of grey. It’s not as if the gang get straightforward cases, only representing clients as pure as the driven snow. Sometimes they defend snipers who shoot at a bride and groom fresh from the altar or cantankerous old men charged with attempted murder. They become embroiled in miserable custody battles. They receive instructions from Mr Mountjoy to prosecute a bereaved single mother who kills an apparent stalker who breaks into her home.
Watching ‘Eternal Law’ reminds me of why I chose to avoid practising family or criminal law, as much as the latter interested me. The programme uses knotty cases to show in a sympathetic light the kind of moral quandaries many a legal professional might encounter. Picking your battles well and knowing how best to fight them is a complicated business indeed. Looking at it again from a faith angle, it is not always clear what God is up to; even when He’s apparently guided us into a situation. We make ourselves available to Him and hope for the best.
In devilish Pembroke we see that evil is frequently disguised in a smart and attractive package. The diabolical sometimes even appears to make sense. The best way to sell a lie is to mix it with a little truth. Deception wouldn’t be nearly as enticing if you could see it coming a mile off, true colours on full display.
For those who aren’t necessarily interested in the existential pondering ‘Eternal Law’ might engender, the show works well purely on an entertainment level too; convincing performances, cracking one-liners (courtesy of Gist of course), credible characterisation and intriguing plots. Sure, it has a makeshift glamour, hodgepodge doctrine and overtones of American-style grandeur. But its heart is in the right place.
Follow the link to catch up on 'Eternal Law'.