Sunday, August 10, 2008

State of Play


In 2009, there's going to be an American version of the BBC series State of Play, but it's going to be a feature length film starring Russel Crowe and Ben Affleck. I didn't know this until I was trying to find a picture for this blog post. That's awesome. But this post is about the BBC series State of Play and whether or not it's any good.

The six-part series begins with the murder of a young black man, apparently drug related, and the suicide of a young researcher working for an important (and relatively young) MP. The deaths are seemingly unrelated, but Cal McCaffery, a journalist and former campaign manager for the MP, thinks otherwise. Cal and his team of journalists begin to unravel to conspiracy around the deaths and the MP by the name of Stephen Collins, and the lies and deceptions begin to pile around them.

I'm not sure if that synopsis can really do the series justice. Not only is the mystery extremely complicated, but it's also not really a whodunit, more of a whydunit. Unlike traditional whodunits, the mystery isn't entirely set up in the first act, but rather developed and refined throughout the entire thing, making revelations possible before the end and the big explanation, while all the time, expanding on the characters and the themes.

Not only is it a terrific mystery and a tight gripping character piece, but it's also impressive for its themes of the relationship between the media and the government. The myriad of ways the two and interact is explored and developed. The relationship between Cal and Stephen, the two main characters, is amiable and antagonistic at various times, depending on their motives and who benefits from what,
qui bono, I guess. But this relationship at the ground level is microcosmic, and it expands and becomes more complex the higher the ladder goes.

There's a terrific scene just past the halfway point, in which Cal's editor Cameron Foster (played the excellent Bill Nighy) has a meeting with his superior. The boss asks Foster to finish things up and not upset the government, as the company is looking for radio licenses later in the year and won't get them if the government is stinging from accusations leveled by the paper. This perfectly highlights the uneasy balance that the media has in reporting what needs to be said and still looking after their own interests, as they are their own company and have bills to pay.

More than once, this theme of uneasy balance is explored by various characters in various ways. One of Cal's colleagues, Della, has a very shaky balance with DCI Bell, the chief inspector on the police side of the murders. It's an alliance of
quid pro quo, but the most important part, trust, is sorely lacking.

The writing is so top notch on this series. I was blown away by the complexities of the plot, of the themes, and of the characters. Each person has their chance to develop, has their own voice, their own motives and fears. Even the stenographer for the journalists gets a moment in the spotlight.

The cast is spectacular, from the two leads to the supporting cast, including James McAvoy and the aforementioned Bill Nighy. Every actor is cast and the dialogue sounds natural and organic coming from their mouths.

State of Play was five and a half hours of riveting, engaging and thought-provoking television. This is exactly why I love British television so much. There's so much effort put into the craft rather than the marketing and the personalities and the hype. It's all about the quality of the product rather than the quantity.

Speaking of which, I'm not sure how in the world they're going to fit all of this into two hours of an American film, which will pull their punches when it comes to the series' defiance of the traditional three-act structure and traditional payoff. I look forward to the film considering its screenwriters (Billy Ray, Matthew Carnahan, etc), but I can't see it beating the British version. Americans rarely do, but they try admirably.

I highly recommend this series if you can get it.

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