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The Twelve review – even Sam Neill can’t save this legal melodrama

The Jurassic Park star delivers a seasoned performance in this Australian show following a murder jury. Shame it’s full of soapy subplots and histrionic plotting

Television is rarely short of a good legal drama, but The Twelve (ITVX) starts with an intriguing premise that promises to set it apart from the rest. An Australian adaptation of the Belgian series De Twaalf, it poses this question: what if the focus wasn’t the crime or the suspect, or even the lawyers battling it out in court, but the jurors? These men and women, complete with a full-spectrum variety of human flaws, must make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

While it should be based on the evidence set in front of them, The Twelve suggests that the jurors’ messy emotions, relationships and troubles have a considerable impact on the verdict.

Naturally, the case over which this jury has to deliberate is a juicy, complicated, all-consuming one that will last for weeks. An artist called Kate Lawson (Kate Mulvany) is accused of having murdered Claire Spears, her 14-year-old niece. The case has become a salacious media scandal, and the trial controversial, because there is no body. Even Claire’s parents disagree over whether or not Kate should be in the dock.

Sam Neill is Kate’s tough-nut senior counsel, Brett Colby, a smooth old silk who aims to prove that, despite apparently damning evidence, Kate did not kill her niece. “The jury is everything,” he cautions, warning Kate that she should do her best to look the part, act the part and “avoid histrionics”.

It’s a warning that the series would have done well to heed. The case is high melodrama that has thrown at the plot not only the kitchen sink, but also the cooker, the fridge and the toaster. There are family betrayals, troubled teens, dangerous social media trends and plenty more; there is the question of whether art can be incriminating or even indecent, if its intent is misconstrued or manipulated.

It’s all rather grubby. Kate’s artistic photographs are used as evidence that she “groomed” Claire; when she is asked, during her police interview, about any sexual element to a particular picture, Kate replies: “That’s such a reductive way to describe a young woman exploring the power of her own beauty.” As a journalist, I am programmed to find any depictions of journalists on TV irritating – we are unethical scumbags who will lie and cheat to get a story, and that is just the shows that get it right, etc – but it must be 10 times worse for artists, who are portrayed as wild-eyed, pretentious, self-obsessed hotheads who live and feel only their craft.

Still, this is supposed to be about the jurors: what is going on in their lives and how this might influence their decision. The viewer is compelled to be one of the 12, as we see the evidence only as it unfolds in court, leaving the question of Kate’s guilt open to interpretation.

There is a university student dealing with the racism of a lecturer; an obnoxious businessman who boasts about his wealth – a sure sign that he is down on his luck; a homesick immigrant whose family video-call him to help cook his meals; and a woman married to a man who raises so many red flags for coercive control that they must be visible from space. How will their lived experiences, as people like to say, twist their interpretations of the case – and how will they come to a verdict as a collective?

In the end, the show does not pull it together. Instead, there is a sense of several soapy subplots bumping against each other, but never really gelling. You are left wanting to get back to the murder, which is the most straightforward part of the story. There is little in the did-she-do-it debate that sets it apart. The 12 aren’t really the focus here, then, and even actors as seasoned as Neill and Mulvany struggle to lift it beyond the realms of a functional thriller.

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