State of Play: An All-Star Team on BBC America
(Dec 7) Often at parties and other social functions people ask about current shows, ‘What should I be watching?’ is the question usually. Fewer inquire about favorite shows of the past. Thank goodness. The memory banks sometimes seem crammed to capacity after 10+ years of writing TV reviews and far more than that watching as a non-reviewing private citizen. Some of the obvious choices come to mind easily: The Sopranos, Hill St. Blues, Mad Men, Hustle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, Sex and the City, The Avengers, This Week with David Brinkley, Rumpole of the Bailey, House of Eliott, House of Cards. After that, it gets tougher. If I had a bit of time to think, one of the series that certainly would occupy a place on the list would be State of Play, an intense, 6-part BBC drama/mystery/political thriller/love story, produced in 2003 and shown here in 2004, by BBC America. Fortunately, BBC America has had the good sense to show State of Play again, beginning this evening, at 10, as part of its Dramaville block. Consider it the best early holiday gift you can find on cable. And no, if you saw the film of the same name with Russell Crowe, I'd argue you haven’t really seen State of Play. The TV series, beginning again on BBC America tonight, is vastly superior to the film. Looking back on the series—and I do, I watch it yearly, sometimes in marathon sessions; I’ll admit, I’ve nearly worn out the DVD screener BBC America sent to review 7 years ago—I realize the cast, while somewhat popular at the time, has become a who’s who of British acting. There’s the wonderful Bill Nighy as a sardonic newspaper editor (yes, I know what you’re thinking: Are there any other kinds of editors?); a young Kelly Macdonald, now a regular on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as a smart, frumpy, but sublimely sexy investigative journalist; Philip Glenister, previewing his acumen at playing a very tough cop, which he’d get to do to perfection a few years later in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There’s much more. The lead parts are played wonderfully by David Morrissey, as a politician who’s been unfaithful to his wife (by the way, in real life this could never happen, right?), and the understated John Simm, as a former political aide who’s jumped to the newspaper business. And I haven’t even mentioned smaller but important characters. There’s the hilarious Rebekah Staton as a nosey secretary at the newspaper; the sultry Polly Walker as the politician’s spurned wife (who doesn’t stay spurned for long); James McAvoy of X-Men and Atonement fame, as an eager cub reporter with a bit of a lineage problem; and Marc Warren, best known here for his turn on BBC's Hustle, shown on these shores by AMC several years ago. Ironically, it’s Warren’s character, Dominic Foy, who gets badly hustled in State of Play. The actors aren't the only stellar talent here. The behind-the-camera team also is a breed apart. The director is David Yates, who probably could retire on the money he's made directing the past four Harry Potter films. And the writer is Paul Abbott, who might be best known in the U.S. for his fine, semi-autobiographical series currently running on Showtime, Shameless. As you might have guessed from the long classification I gave to State of Play at the top of this blog ("an intense, 6-part BBC drama/mystery/political thriller/love story"), it’s fair to say that this series encompasses many areas of human emotion and interaction. It's satisfying on many levels and reaches most of the pleasure points and a few of the displeasure ones. Oversimplifying the plot terribly, the story revolves around a team of London newspaper reporters (remember, this is 2003, when newspapers had large staffs and money; oh, those were the days). The journalists uncover a scandal that spirals up to the highest levels of government, but begins benignly with two crimes that seem unrelated. The only drawbacks? Besides Macdonald’s Scottish brogue, which can be difficult to decipher, State of Play is, as I wrote above, intense. It’s definitely lean-in viewing, particularly in the early episodes, when details of multiple incidents unfold like artichoke layers. Perhaps it’s better to set your recorder to tape the 6-part series each week and then watch it in chunks of 2 episodes, maybe starting during your Christmas break. You can thank me later.