Saturday, October 03, 2020


It is a sad state of affairs when neither major party presidential candidate will condemn extremists on their sides of the political spectrum. Genuine moderates are rare these days, but there is still one in the UK. That would be fictional Prime Minister Robert Sutherland, a very David Cameron-esque Conservative. Frustratingly, extremist partisans on both sides will take advantage of a natural disaster to undermine his government in writer-creator Ben Richards’ six-part COBRA, which starts tomorrow night on PBS.

Technically, COBRA is not an acronym. It is really a bit of a misnomer for the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, but it is a catchy term. In any event, there will be a COBRA convened to prepare as best they can for a sudden solar event that could possibly wreak havoc on the power grid and communications network. At first, blowhard Brexit Home Secretary Archie Glover-Morgan is more concerned about his snake-in-the-grass protégé getting sacked, but things suddenly get serious when everyone realizes this disaster is actually happening.

It could have been worse. Four regional transformers were fried, but most of the nation still has power. The bad news is they only have three spare transformers available. As Fraser Walker, the administrator of their rough equivalent to FEMA explains, transformers are an industrial-sized item that you can’t just stash in a drawer for a rainy day. A fourth is quickly procured, but while it is in transit, one region must endure sustained darkness. Northumberland logically draws the short straw, because a jetliner crash on the highway has temporarily cut off ground transportation.

However, mounting frustration will give rise to a nativist militia uprising, who will challenge Chief Constable Stuart Collier’s efforts to maintain safety and stability. The resulting anarchy is also a golden opportunity for the Home Secretary to undermine Sutherland, which only gets riper when the PM’s daughter becomes embroiled in a tragic scandal.

Although Richards takes every cheap shot possible at Tory policies,
COBRA inadvertently illustrates how the worst impulses of demagogues on both sides are cynically egged on by the media. Sutherland faces some agonizing choices, but he invariably makes the best possible decision, yet he is vilified in the press and opportunistic extremists, who use violent revolutionary rhetoric when calling for his ouster. The ironic parallels between the show’s riots and the chaos on the streets of Portland and Kenosha is awkwardly glaring. It probably wasn’t what Richards was intending, but it makes COBRA uncomfortably timely.

Of course, the site of Robert Carlyle in Number 10 will inevitably make viewers think: “no wonder there’s trouble, they elected Begbie from
Trainspotting.” Nevertheless, he plays Sutherland with a steeliness that inspires confidence. When he vents, it is beautiful, but he also has some finely turned moments of compassion.

In contrast, the Home Secretary is a ridiculously over-the-top caricature, but it is still rather entertaining to David Haig scheme and chew the scenery. Richard Dormer and Victoria Hamilton greatly humanize the series as the world-weary Walker and Anna Marshall, Sutherland’s flawed but decent chief-of-staff. Steven Cree lends the series some refreshing grit as hardnosed Chief Collier, while Lisa Palfrey keeps viewers guessing in the right way as Eleanor James, the slippery head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and presumed ally of the Home Secretary.

In many ways,
COBRA is over-written and under-resolved. For instance, there is a wildly unlikely Bosnian subplot involving Marshall that is impossible to take seriously. Nevertheless, the political back-stabbing, crisis management, and media bottom-feeding are compelling stuff. Watching COBRA should prompt viewers to ask how they would act during such an event and to reflect on their responses to our own over-heated times. The truth is, if you think extremists are only on the other side of the fence, you’re probably one too. Recommended for its Allen Drury-style one-darned-thing-after-another brinksmanship, COBRA premieres Sunday night (10/4) on most PBS stations.