on April 2, 2008
A couple of years ago, while reviewing "The Queen," I wistfully semi-wished for a West Wing-type TV series set in the world of British politics. Turns out such a series already existed, the BBC's 2003 series, "State of Play," released at last on region one DVD.
Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) is a rising young hotshot Member of Parliament and chairman of the ostensibly independent Energy Select Committee. On the same morning that his beautiful young research assistant Sonia dies under mysterious circumstances in a subway station, a teenage bag-snatcher is shot to death on the other side of London. While investigating the teenage boy's death, newspaper reporters Cal McCaffrey (John Simm) and Della Smith (Kelly McDonald) realize that the youngster made a phone call to Sonia the morning they both died. Further controversy arises when it's revealed Collins was romantically involved with his assistant. There's another wrinkle: McCaffrey once managed the Collins election campaign; in the wake of scandal, the embattled MP and his estranged wife Anne (Polly Walker) both turn to the conflicted McCaffrey for shelter and sympathy.
From there, the drama gets increasingly complicated and messy; I won't give too much away (and have probably given away too much already). The further Della, Cal, and their fellow journalists dig into the two deaths, the more scandal and conspiracy they uncover. Part of the drama is political, part of it is personal, and all of it is riveting. The script (six hour-long episodes) by Paul Abbott is taut and intelligent, allowing plenty of space for both plot and character, with a perfect balance of drama, humor, intrigue, and romance. There's some nicely crunchy stuff in there about the dangerous mix of politics and big business and the importance of a free press, but those elements never overwhelm the narrative. The suspense is spooled out perfectly over the six hours, and some of the action sequences are strongly reminiscent of the three Bourne movies. Once you start watching this series, it's *very* hard to stop.
The cast is large, and there's any number of sub-plots, but the writing and directing (David Yates) are so skillful and the characters so distinctive that it's no problem to keep track of everything. Paying close attention to detail is a must; some clues are dropped in with diabolical subtlety. The denouement and resolution hit all the right notes: the protagonists' ultimate victory comes at a huge personal cost. The closing shot in particular is just aces.
With such strong material, the cast has to be at the top of their game, and it's a testament to the quality of this series that there's not one weak performance in the lot. Morrissey achieves just the right mix of unlikeable and sympathetic, playing a man who seems to have willfully screwed up his life; Walker is particularly sharp as his wounded, angry wife. The team of journalists has terrific rapport and camaraderie, an intelligent, warm, likeable bunch, led by their acerbic editor, Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, simply brilliant). Foster's scenes facing off against the local DCI (Philip Glenister) are especially fun. Marc Warren has a great turn as an unsavory witness/ suspect in the two deaths; James McAvoy does strong work as a freelance reporter with something to prove. There are dozens of excellent performances among the third and fourth tier players, and even the one-shot walk-on characters are cast with admirable care.
Special praise is due to John Simm for his outstanding work as Cal McCaffrey. Cal is the heart of the story, its most sympathetic character, the guy viewers will instinctively root for--even when he does something incredibly stupid, it's impossible not to like him, to want things to work out for him. Simm gives the character all sorts of tics and quirks and layers; he plays beautifully off the other actors (Cal's final confrontation with Stephen is just devastating); he's a presence even when he's not doing anything in particular. It's just a wonderful, wonderful performance, a standout even in this uniformly stellar cast.
For icing on the cake, there's some eye-catching visuals, and the soundtrack has an edgy, urban vibe. If the multitude of accents and Brit-slang proves too much, one can flip on the handy subtitles. Disappointingly, the DVD set is very thin on extra features; I would have loved to see some interviews with the cast and crew. Viewers with kids in the house should be aware that "State of Play" is definitely R-rated, with moderate amounts of sex, violence, and swearing, as well as characters who drink and smoke almost nonstop.
The DVD set was released in advance of a big-budget Hollywood adaptation that's due to hit cinemas next year. With Helen Mirren and Russell Crowe in the cast, it might not be bad, but I'd nevertheless recommend giving the original a spin before checking out the re-make.
on April 11, 2008
It is shows like this that make cable or satellite TV worth the extra expense from over the air broadcast.
There was a time the US made decent mini-series, but as the public airwaves became less for the public and more for the broadcasters' profit margins, the downhill spiral of quality began, and now we are the land of such high brow programing as Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? Or watching people prostitute themselves for their 15 minutes of fame by appearing on shows like The Apprentice, or Survivor.
Our cable and day time TV, even worse, Dr. Phil? Please, give me the chance to be on TV and I'll let you rip me apart emotionally. But if one surfs long enough, you can find outstanding shows.
The Brits don't do long dragged out series, the original Office, six episodes per season, two seasons. MI-5, six episodes per season and we are up to six seasons. Wire In The Blood, Silent Witness, six episodes per season and still going strong. Life on Mars which sadly the writers only allowed two seasons of 6 episodes each, concluded this year. All fine shows, made without the being lowered to lowest common denominator.
State Of Play is not only in the same class as those shows referenced above, but in fact may surpass. Others have set out the plot line, and intrigue so I won't revisit or reveal more.
However, I strongly suggest purchasing and viewing this excellent mini-series because as with anything of any quality, American producers have grabbed a hold of this and are going to turn it into a movie. And not like the Lord of the Rings kind of movie where all of the plots and subplots play out over three movies. No, they are going to take 350 minutes of high drama, political intrigue, and the presses inability to provide objective coverage without undue influence, and if we are lucky, we will receive 120 minutes, or approximately 1/3 of the story.
Save yourself the trouble of paying for a cheap knockoff, and watch the real thing. Turn off those "reality" shows, tell Dr. Phil that pop psychology as entertainment is not only unethical, but pathetic, not just on the part of the shows' guests, but on the host himself.
BBC may only be able to keep producing quality shows if their viewer ship extends beyond their advertising free public airwaves. Yep, advertising free, like PBS used to be.
I've seen this on BBCA but out of my loyalty for quality TV, I'm buying not one set, but two. One for me, one for someone as a gift.
on October 31, 2008
Excellent. "State of Play," is without question one of the best written television thriller, adult-oriented (and I don't mean sexual content) I've ever seen. (And it's certainly in the running for the top honors.) I haven't been this satisfied by a political suspense thriller since I saw "The Lives of Others" (Germany, 2006 - winner of the Oscar for Best Foriegn Language film, 2006). Yes, "State of Play" is that good!
on November 16, 2010
I saw Kevin MacDonald's film of "State of Play" before I saw the BBC miniseries on which it was based. The movie is very good, but the miniseries--with its more clearly delineated characters and its greater sense of tragedy--has to be one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Paul Abbott's writing is a marvel, combining an intricate yet coherent plot with dazzling dialogue. The acting is also first-rate; I had never seen the show's stars, John Simm and David Morrissey, in anything before, but I certainly hope to do so again. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is stuffed with many of my British Rep favorites--Bill Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, James McAvoy, Polly Walker--and they are as wonderful as ever. This version of "State of Play" is not only superior to the movie, but in my opinion stands with "All the President's Men" and "Nothing But the Truth" as the best screen delineation ever of the uneasy relationship between journalism and politics.