TV on DVD: State of Play (2003)

Get The Original BBC Miniseries

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When a young black youth is gunned down in the busy streets of London, the easiest thing in the world initially is to pass off his untimely demise with the most convenient of stereotypes that it more than likely had something to do with drugs. The same goes on the exact same morning when a beautiful twenty-something environmental researcher falls underneath the tracks amidst the hustle and bustle of commuters traveling by tube as the police simply assume she pulled an Anna Karenina in a gruesome suicide.

However, the plot thickens when we realize that not only had the two seemingly unrelated individuals chatted together briefly that morning on a cellular phone but also when the female victim is identified as Sonia Baker-- an employee working for David Morrissey's rising Labour Party M.P. Stephen Collins.

Shaken by the news--when Collins becomes visually upset during a Parliament press conference, soon London realizes there's much more to the story. And as the journalists of The Herald join the media feeding frenzy, the married father of two-- Collins-- publicly admits to an extramarital affair with the deceased Baker.

Although again, some are quick to just label it a tragic tale of a woman sleeping with the boss, The Herald's talented reporter Cal MacAffrey (John Simm) realizes that it its core, there's something deeper at play than simply a romance gone wrong, based not only on an intuitive hunch but also because he knows Collins personally.

Having served as his campaign manager nearly a decade earlier and helping him get elected to the powerful position he's in-- holding sway in major legislation regarding the environment-- the two estranged friends begin to bond once again in sympathy as Cal and the rest of the staffers start digging for dirt and discovering that it's leading them down some very dangerous and disturbing paths.

With the full support of their cynical, arrogant, yet top-notch editor (the irreplaceable Bill Nighy) behind Cal, his fellow journalist (the lovely Kelly Macdonald), and their new freelance recruit (a hilarious scene-stealing, very young James McAvoy), the group gets to work in Cracker writer Paul Abbott's BAFTA award-winning six-part miniseries that stands as one of the finest achievements in the miniseries format ever produced for the small screen.

This stunning achievement was helmed by The Girl in the Cafe director David Yates (who'd collaborated with Macdonald and Nighy in that lovely HBO Golden Globe winning tale of politics and romance) before he'd go on to work as the newest director in the Harry Potter franchise-- directing both Phoenix and the upcoming Half-Blood Prince. And this time, he ties together politics, love and a great ensemble cast once again working from Paul Abbott's richly detailed, highly complex, and emotionally compelling screenplay.

Simply put, it's sophisticated, televised brain food that hooks you from the start and since it's filled with so many twists, subplots, character surprises, red herrings, dead-ends, new leads, coincidences and conspiracies, it only benefits from the DVD format where you can add English subtitles to understand the somewhat challenging UK accents, rewind scenes filled with multiple character arguments and emotional tugs of war, and-- most importantly-- devour it much faster than having to wait for the next weekly installment.

Despite the admitted grainy image of the gritty, dimly lit, largely hand-held documentary production style as the picture quality isn't as sharp as it should be for a newer release nor is the stereo sound-- the technical flaws are instantly usurped by its overwhelmingly substantive, addictive, top-notch and highly satisfying storyline that sends you down so many paths you begin to realize (much like David Fincher's Zodiac) just how much cops and reporters have in common.

And once again, State of Play is further proof in illustrating the stellar superiority of the BBC in terms of bringing the highest in quality to their network projects at a company where they value the writing so much that the writer's name shares the same bill as the title of the show.

Additionally Morrissey's dashing good looks offered those-- like me-- who'd only seen him in HBO's Stephen Frears drama The Deal as Gordon Brown a chance to shine as a leading man. Likewise, MacAvoy, Macdonald, Nighy and Polly Walker are uniformly excellent. However, the real revelation aside from wishing we could have our very own American version of Paul Abbott writing for our much-needed poor evening television lineups is the empathetic, fierce, and brave turn by John Simm.

A terrific actor who easily manages to walk an emotional fine-line throughout as his ethical dilemmas and involvement in the case are jeopardized when he falls harder for Collins' wife-- he moves seamlessly from scene to scene whether he has to be in lover mode, journalist mode, investigator mode, or betrayed friend mode.

Although the film has been available on DVD for quite some time-- with Universal Pictures' recent truncated feature length version starring Russell Crowe (the pure idea of which reminds me of headlines and tabloids as opposed to the full story contained within the Yates work)-- it's fortunately gaining a second life on DVD.

A highly recommended miniseries that reminds us just how valued our newspapers truly are-- State of Play is one work that I know I'll be studying again soon the second time around to try and fully appreciate all of the intricate twists and turns as they fly by like the speed of the London underground or a printing press before “it's stopped” and reset so that the truth can be revealed as a front page exclusive that continues on in five additional pieces.