In three episodes of six high-stakes cases, Maxine Peake, left, and Rupert Penry-Jones star in Peter Moffat’s riveting legal drama about the political and personal intrigues and the hard cases facing top barristers in the criminal law courtrooms and chambers of contemporary London.

Courtesy | PBS

Americans often have trouble understanding accents and idioms in British film and TV shows, but with “Silk,” a three-part, six-hour series on “Masterpiece Mystery!,” they’ll be challenged to understand the bewigged British legal system as well.

It is worth the effort, though, and even if you don’t entirely get the difference between a barrister and a solicitor and that lawyers in the same firm may be called on to either prosecute or defend a client. Although the series, created by Peter Moffat (“Criminal Justice”), sometimes teeters on the edge of melodrama, the characters and performances maintain our interest.

British slang

While the series’ title may intentionally suggest lingerie, “silk” is British legal slang for someone who achieves the status of queen’s counsel.

Martha Costello (Maxine Peake, “Little Dorrit”) is a hotshot lawyer in Shoe Lane Chambers and has her hopes set on becoming QC. Her rival is the morally challenged Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones, “The 39 Steps”), who works in the same office.

Martha and Clive are each assigned a law student. Martha gets floppy-haired charmer Nick Slade (Tom Hughes, “The Lady Vanishes”), while Clive gets — in more ways than one — Niamh Cranitch (Natalie Dormer, “The Tudors”), who is smart as a whip and also the daughter of a powerful jurist.

Nick lives up to his name in the first episode by “nicking” expensive legal regalia, including the traditional horsehair wig that must be worn at all times in court. He turns his charm on Niamh, but her romantic interests lie elsewhere, despite being warned by others that Clive hits on all the attractive female law students and that a relationship with him can cause her difficulties in her career.

The office is run with a sometimes-dictatorial hand by Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke, “Reggie Perrin”).

Challenging cases

While we are intrigued by the personal and professional ins and outs at Shoe Lane, there are challenging cases to be handled.

In the first episode, Martha is called on to defend petty criminal named Gary Rush (Paul Hilton), accused of beating an elderly pensioner during a burglary.

Later, she has to go to bat for a teenager who’s been turning tricks since he was 13 and is accused of “cottaging,” seducing older men for anonymous sex in public bathrooms.

In many ways, “Silk” is closer to USA’s “Suits” and the old American show “L.A. Law” than “Law & Order”: The law cases are interesting, but the greater focus is on the personal lives of Martha and her colleagues, and a clandestine plot by a few of the lawyers to clip Billy’s wings or even to stage a mass exodus from the firm.

Frankly, some of this stuff is overwritten and difficult to believe.

For example, would a powerful lawyer who is driven to become a queen’s counsel really snort cocaine only somewhat out of sight during a lawyers’ social event?

When another character finds out she’s pregnant, we’re meant to guess about the identity of the father for a while, but given the unfortunate wealth of other obvious plot points in “Silk,” we don’t need to spend a lot of time on it.

Powerful performances

The performances, for the most part, fill in some credibility gaps in how the characters are written.

Peake is terrific as Martha, easily conveying the contrast between the character’s unquestionable skill in the courtroom and inability to manage her life outside of it.

Hughes and Dormer are both sexy and convincing, and Stuke is terrific in the complexly shaded role of Billy.

Only the otherwise accomplished Penry-Jones gets skunked by the flaws in the script.

Clive slips and slides from good guy to cad far too easily to be believed, and he pushes credibility completely under the tram when he finally appears to take stock of what a moral reprobate he is.

One other word of warning about “Silk”: It may test your endurance for annoying seesaw cello music, which runs rampant through the entire six hours of the show.

Yes, we get it: Life in chambers is fast-paced. But “Silk” would have been better to depend on what we see on the screen to convey that than mind-numbing chase music. “Silk” is not a silent Western from the 1920s.

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