Monday, December 05, 2011

Trial by Tabloid: State of Play

It is hard to say who is more unsavory in this morality play, big business, the press, or the Labour Party. For what it is worth, the journalists are the ostensive protagonists of State of Play (promo here), which premieres this Wednesday as part of BBC America’s Dramaville showcase.

This should not be difficult, but viewers must absolutely forget anything they might know about the 2009 Hollywood feature adaptation. The original 2003 BBC series, written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates (of Harry no joke Potter fame), is far more intricate, intelligent, and murky. Nobody comes across looking heroic here, except maybe the poor beleaguered coppers.

MP Stephen Collins initially appears to be the Labour Party’s version of the litigious Gary Condit, when the apparent death of Sonia Baker, his staff researcher and mistress, thrusts his private into the headlines. Collins comes from the left wing of his party though, and is considered an up-and-comer, “tipped” for the next cabinet. Much to the surprise of the Party’s top fixer, the elders duly circle the wagons around Collins rather than cutting him loose.

Though never very forthcoming, Collins starts talking to Cal McCaffrey, his former campaign manager now working for one of the more reputable tabloids. When Collins links Baker’s death to a street murder previously dismissed as a drug-related crime, he begins to get a sense of the conspiracy’s scope. However, he somewhat jeopardizes the story when he takes up with Collins’ estranged wife, Anne. It is safe to say this displeases his old school editor Cameron Foster, but he is stuck with McCaffrey when the reporter starts connecting top government officials and a giant multinational oil company to the affair.

However, this is not a simple corporate malfeasance story. While we identify with the Herald journalists as our primary POV characters, it is hard to consider them noble crusaders. Frankly, the way they deceive and manipulate many of their sources would be appalling if they not already so ethically compromised. Yet, Abbott spares Collins least of all with his agonizing drip-drip-drip of revelations. Of course for viewers, this is all juicy salacious fun.

Tightly and compellingly written, every hour of State offers dozens of twists that threaten take the story in unexpected directions. The cast is top-notch from top to bottom, but Bill Nighy dominates the proceedings as the sarcastic Foster (Bill Nighy, the grouchy editor guy). This is exactly the sort of tart-tongued, sophisticated role he was born to play and it is a blast to watch him dig into it.

Still, due credit has to be given to David Morrissey, whose work is critically important holding everything together. Somehow, he keeps viewers invested in the problematic Collins after each new epic fail. In other words, he is a convincing politician. On the other hand, John Simm’s McCaffrey is annoying and noxiously self-serving, which makes him absolutely convincing as a journalist. As far as “likability” goes, don’t look for it here (and who needs it, anyway?), but Kelly Macdonald comes the closest, nicely portraying the increasingly assertive junior reporter Della Smith.

State is not a proper source for political or economic analysis. In this world, Collins’ “punitive taxation” (his term) on the oil industry will inexplicably lead to cheaper and more plentiful energy for the country. Rather, it excels at scandal and skullduggery, executed with wit and seasoning. Highly entertaining, State will be some of the best television on television for the next six weeks, starting this Wednesday (12/7) on BBC America.

(BBC Photo: (C) Josh Barrat)