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Review: The return of 'State of Play'

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Tonight, seven years after it first brought the series to these shores, BBC America will begin replaying the 2003 conspiracy-thriller miniseries "State of Play." It is a terrific work of television, with what seems now a superstar cast and crew, nearly all of whom have gone on to greater fame and bigger if not always better things. ("State of Play" did set the bar high.) Actors include Kelly McDonald, the best thing about "Boardwalk Empire"; John Simm, later the star of "Life on Mars"; David Morrissey ("Blackpool," "Red Riding"); Bill Nighy, already a little bit famous then for "Love, Actually," but not yet for "Pirates of the Caribbean"; Polly Walker ("Rome," "Caprica"); Philip Glenister (also later of "Life on Mars" and its sequel, "Ashes to Ashes"); and James McAvoy, who is now a full-blown movie star ("The Last King of Scotland," the lead in "Arthur Christmas" -- opposite Nighy, as it happens). Writer Paul Abbott would create "Shameless"; director David Yates made the the last four "Harry Potter" films.

I reviewed "State of Play" at the time of its American premiere in tandem with "Prime Suspect 6." Here are excerpts:

There are many points in common between the series. Each richly employs London locations, venturing into the reaches of the city that Hugh Grant movies never show. Each is scored by the constant ring of the cellphone. Each is fairly but not fatally "stylish" ....

In both shows, the plots point toward bad actions in high places. It's in some ways a cliche of fiction that the higher up the ladder you go, the more corrupt, cynical and arrogant are the people you find, but it is a cliche not without merit. (And as such people are so rarely held to account in real life, it's always nice to see them get their comeuppance in the moving pictures.) And despite their heroes' nominal victories, each ends somberly -- the case is closed but the damage is done. Real closure is chimerical.

And most crucially, both benefit from length, which allows for the complexity and the sprawl commonly called "Dickensian" but also allows for silence, the long look, the apparently extraneous conversation that builds texture and reveals character rather than just advancing the plot ....

A continually surprising thriller that maintains an air of imminent danger through its five or so hours "State of Play" is a grander, more romantic creation [than "Prime Suspect 6"]. Written by Paul Abbott ("Cracker," "Touching Evil"), it is at once harrowing and funny and involves friendship and betrayal, love and adultery, government conspiracies and personal jealousy and the overlapping business of the police and the press, each of whom has its own view of the proceedings: "It's a case, not a story," cop chastens journalist.

The main focus is upon a not-too-motley Scooby Gang of young adrenalized reporters -- the policemen are not quite so good-looking or energetic -- on a breaking story that keeps breaking into different stories. (Some of their information-gathering tactics seem marginally legal to me, or at least not very nice.) They are led by Cal McCaffrey (John Simm, Raskolnikov in last year's "Crime and Punishment"), who is somewhat dissolute, in the familiar dissolute-reporter mode, and trying to help former best friend Stephen Collins (David Morrissey, "Girl With the Pearl Earring"), an ambitious politician whose life begins to unravel when his assistant and mistress goes under a subway train.

Cal's also sleeping with Collins' estranged wife (Polly Walker), while ... well, you'll really have to watch it. We could be here all day summarizing, and it would just spoil the fun. But mention should be made of Kelly Macdonald, in a slightly more knowing version of the Nancy Drew figure she played in "Gosford Park"; and especially Bill Nighy (the aging rock star in "Love Actually") as a newspaper editor with a dry wit and ironic eyebrows, who emerges slowly as the series' comic relief and shadow hero and whose character loudly cries: Sequel!

Sequel came there none, though a big-screen remake, from different hands, starring Russell Crowe was released in 2009. (And Nighy's recent "Page Eight," which showed here on PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary," gamboled in a similar field.) But here is the original, back again and unbeatable.

-- Robert Lloyd

twitter.com/LATimesTVLloyd

Photo: David Morrissey and John Simm in "State of Play." Credit: BBC America

 

 
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