Judge Adam Arseneau's state of play is off-side.
Sometimes you have to read between the lines.
The critically-acclaimed State Of Play debuted in 2003 on BBC as a six-episode miniseries about political corruption, media influence, and corporate espionage. Now on DVD, it gets a chance to flourish on this side of the ocean and find a new audience.
Facts of the Case
Two deaths on the streets of London: the gun slaying of a young black man, apparently a drug-related killing, and the accidental death of Sonia Baker, young researcher for Member of Parliament Stephen Collins (David Morrissey, Basic Instinct 2, The Reaping). Two seemingly unrelated incidents, with no immediately apparent connections between the two, except that one of the deaths has the potential to be a scandal. Collins, married with children but visibly devastated by his aide's death, prompts the press to go digging into his relationship with his researcher, looking for dirt.
Journalist Cal McAffrey (John Simm, 24 Hour Party People), a former member of Collins' team during his election years who now writes for The Herald, is asked by his editor, Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), to investigate the story. As Cal goes digging into his friend's life, he uncovers scandal after scandal, and soon makes the unlikely connection between these two random deaths. Soon, the entire Herald staff is becomes enveloped in the largest story of their collective careers, unraveling a tangled web of deception and political subterfuge involving high-ranking British government figures, the energy industry—and possibly even his friend Collins.
As political thrillers are counted, State Of Play acts like the royalty check-cashing granddaddy, a massive achievement in serialized drama with blisteringly complex plot twists and intrigue. Creator Paul Abbott (Shameless: The Complete First Season), tasked with bringing something heady and substantial to the BBC, crafted a smart, compelling and—perhaps most importantly—entirely plausible story of corruption in the government, industry, and the media all tied up together with a big red bow. It is a tale especially poignant in the United Kingdom, where the media's influence over public affairs and scandal makes North American journalists look like rank amateurs. Much is explored as the relationship between politics and media crosses over like a Venn diagram, which leaves neither side looking particularly flattering at the end of the day.
If this were baseball, the BBC would be rounding third and heading for home, having hit it out of the park with State of Play. Ranking among the finest televised achievements of the network in the last few years, the narrative is incredible, twisting, turning, dodging, and eking out all attempts to second-guess its direction, deliberately leading viewers on numerous red herrings. Just when you think you have things figured out, every question answered, two more pop up and send the story spinning like a compass in an MRI machine. Credit to the writers for developing a story complicated enough to tickle the noodle, but not too complex as to require flow charts or visual aides. It is difficult to discuss the series as deeply as I would like without spoiling its narrative pitfalls, so forgive the ambiguity—rest assured the surprise is worth it.
The more compelling moments of the series come not in the various subplots surround the mystery in front of us—although it is a great mystery indeed—but in how indoctrinate and incestuous the interplay between politics, media, and industry are in the modern information age. All three stand at cross-purposes, yet secretly acknowledge that none can succeed without careful consideration of the other two. Vital communication often runs deep underneath the observed interactions between the groups, taking place in back-room meetings and clandestine e-mails, and through veiled threats. State Of Play, if nothing else, acts as a gigantic flashlight, shining the light directly in the eyes of all involved, including the media—a gutsy statement to make coming from a governmentally-funded broadcaster. But that is why we love the BBC. They have chutzpah.
Despite the complexity and well-realized narrative, incredulity creeps in now and again, but only marginally so. The drama is tight, exciting, and tense, but occasionally swings to the over-dramatic side in that pounding electronic drum BBC sort of way they do these days. One gets the impression, especially during mild car chases and mediocre action sequences, that the producers wished they had a Jack Bauer-esque character to run wild with. They don't, of course, and the minor dabbles in such areas get just the tiniest bit corny. Luckily, the producers space such sequences out far enough to keep the series grounded in reality.
What sells State Of Play during these more incredulous moments is the superb performances from its impressively talented actors and actresses. Though some may be less known on this side of the pond, this is a heck of a cast for a televised miniseries. David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting), James McAvoy (The Last King Of Scotland), Polly Walker (Rome), Marc Warren (Hustle), and hell—Bill freakin' Nighy! Putting that guy in anything immediately secures its success, I tell you. It is a mathematical fact. There is some serious talent here, and every performance, without exception, hits its mark.
The anamorphic transfer is clear and crisp, but excessively grainy, easily noticeable throughout the feature, but deliberate in that hand-held documentary sort of way. Black levels are well-balanced despite the grain, and colors border on muted. The camera work, a mix of stationary and hand-held shots is well executed throughout. The audio comes in stereo only, but it is a good meaty presentation with strong bass, clear dialogue, and a hyperactive score of pounding rhythms. Subtitles are in English and occasionally help sort out the thick accents and slang vernacular tossed about by characters.
In terms of supplements, we get two commentary tracks—the first on Episode 1 with director David Yates and writer Paul Abbott; the second on Episode 6 with producer Hillary Bevan Jones, editor Mark Day, and David Yates again. These are quiet, reflective commentary tracks, prone to gigantic gaps of silence while the participants watch the drama unfold and muse, but still have enough insight into the creation process to be worthwhile for fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A minor flaw to be sure, but State Of Play runs on just a bit too long for its own good. From the start of the mystery to the finish is a wild and wonderful ride, but one with some bloat that could have easily been trimmed—say, five episodes instead of six. The drama is tense and flows well, but it does lag here and there, as if stretching events out for running time consideration.
To this point, Dominic Foy—I hate this character outright. We have to spend endless amounts of time in his presence listening to him fawn and snivel and weasel himself out of telling the truth, and sure, the writers are having fun with him, clearly, but it goes on and on and on, impossibly long, and just when you think there could possibly be no more; there he is again, sniveling and whining and dodging questions.
State Of Play is a winner, hands down. Compelling, though-provoking, daring, and gutsy, it achieves everything it sets out to do without breaking a sweat. As television serials go, it gets no better than this—although it does raise the question why Hollywood is not able to come up with anything this substantial or meaty to feed us in North America.
As it turns out, the property is currently being remade as we speak into a heavyweight Hollywood feature film directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and starring Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, and Helen Mirren. Should have seen that coming. All jokes aside, now is the perfect time to get familiar with this exceptionally well-crafted BBC miniseries in advance of its theatrical debut next year. This way, you can join in with everyone else bashing all the things the theatrical version screwed up and changed for the worse. C'mon, it'll be fun!
It's a stellar achievement in serialized drama; nobody beats the BBC at their own game. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Commentary Tracks on Episodes 1 and 6
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