TV: The Twelve (Season 1)

While far from exceptional, The Twelve is an interesting watch sure to scratch a certain itch for fans of international drama. This Dutch-language import from Belgium initially looks like it might shape up like a modernized 12 Angry Men, but ultimately is a much broader affair, mixing its flashback-heavy courtroom saga with the daily-life struggles of the jury members whose lives are turned upside down by the trial.

The case itself is fairly standard stuff: Frie Palmers (Maaike Cafmeyer), a troubled woman in her forties, is accused of killing, eighteen years previously, her best friend Brechtje Vindevogel (Lynn Van Royen), and then— more recently—her own daughter, whom she lost custody of two years earlier. The connection between the two is Stefaan De Munck (Johan Heidenberg), Frie’s ex-husband, who also happens to have been Brechtje’s boyfriend at the time of her murder. Neither Frie nor Stefaan seem particularly trustworthy, but the trial itself has become a high-profile media sensation.

This press attention only makes things more difficult for the jurors, who already have plenty of problems. Delphine Spijkers (Maaike Neuville), for example, is the sole caregiver for three children, and her duties as an alternate juror create strife with her abusive, jealous husband. Holly Ceusters (Charlotte De Bruyne) has a past that, had the lawyers known about it, might have kept her off the jury. Zookeeper Arnold Briers (Peter Gorissen), a lonely widower slowly growing bitter with age, struggles to contain his feelings of powerlessness and invisibility in his personal life, while contractor Joeri Cornille (Tom Vermeir) tries to rein in his ne’er-do-well brother’s corner-cutting practices at the construction site. Indeed, most of the jurors have dramatic personal dilemmas—which presents an opportunity to desperately indebted Noël Marinus (Piet De Praitere), who starts leaking jury drama to a disreputable journalist to make some money.

As the trial progresses, its puzzle pieces don’t fall into place so much as collide jaggedly with each other, creating a vague semblance of Frie’s innocence or guilt, depending on your point of view. Even as the viewer’s allegiance shifts back and forth between Frie and Stefaan, something similar happens with the jurors, as initially sympathetic characters reveal deep flaws, and initially reprehensible ones show signs of personal growth as they attempt to become better versions of themselves. These two primary narrative threads, along with the many subthreads that surround them, proceed in a muddy procession right up until the final verdict.

Alas, that verdict isn’t particularly satisfying. The ultimate episode of the season, teed up to supply the season’s ultimate dramatic fireworks, ends up falling flat. Because the case itself isn’t particularly interesting, and neither its plaintiffs nor its defendants are terribly likable, it’s hard to get too invested in the spurious deliberations. But in a way, that destination is thematically consistent with the journey. If The Twelve has a coherent point of view on justice, it’s a fairly simple one, and perhaps a bit cynical. Every jury, it suggests, is compromised. Nothing is black and white. There’s good and bad in everyone. We shouldn’t be too anxious to sit in judgement without looking into our own faults. Or, well, something along those lines.

Which is to say that The Twelve aims for a murky and ambiguous message, and succeeds—perhaps to its own detriment. I’m not unhappy I watched it, though, because the journey itself is fairly engrossing, and it’s well performed; Neuville, in particular, delivers a noteworthy, engaging performance as the long-suffering Delphine. Plus, the milieu is unusual, and the series has a refreshingly unpredictable shape. It doesn’t all come off, but it’s still an intriguing production.

 

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