State Of Play debuts on BBC America tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern.
What can we learn from State of Play a full eight years after it originally aired on BBC in the UK, and a full seven years after it played on BBC America (then a much smaller outfit)? The star-studded miniseries is already widely available on DVD, and the American remake hit theatres two years ago. Writer Paul Abbot and director David Yates have gone on to ridiculous heights of financial success with Shameless and the Harry Potter films, respectively. New Professor Xavier James McAvoy got one of his first high-profile roles here, alongside a pitch-perfect cast that includes John Simm of Life on Mars, Kelly MacDonald of Boardwalk Empire, and jack-of-all-trades Bill Nighy. There are few pieces of television as validated after the fact as this one. If by some chance you’ve never had the impetus to get your hands on it, BBC America is rebroadcasting the series. Anyone interested in well-written, well-acted, tightly plotted political thrillers should not miss this masterpiece of serialized conspiracy drama.
One morning in London, a young researcher named Sonia Baker dies after being run over by a train on the Underground. Elsewhere, Kelvin Stagg, a black youth, is found dead in alley in an assumed drug-related murder. As is the case in many political conspiracy thrillers, at first glance these two cases could not be more unrelated. Baker’s story is nothing more than a suicide until her employer, Labour MP Stephen Collins, breaks down during a press conference reacting to her death, implicating an affair. Cameron Foster, Editor of The Herald newspaper, played wonderfully by Nighy, commissions his star reporter – and Collins’ former campaign manager - Cal McCaffrey to dig around for a story. Cal, along with a team of other reporters, discovers that the two deaths are tenuously related, setting off an increasingly complex investigation that involves large political and economic forces in a shifting conspiracy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in a meticulously complicated but easy to follow story, but I’ll stop there. Giving away too much of the plot would ruin the edge-of-your-seat fun State of Play provides in spades.
The American remake was met with a generous amount of acclaim upon its release, but it’s no surprise that cutting six hours down to two gave short shrift to many elements that are better used when spread out over the miniseries running time. All the plot twists over the entire run got tamped down into two hours, so each scene past the opening exposition kept twisting the plot on its head. In six episodes, there’s time to develop characters, complicate relationships, and introduce many more ethical quandaries into the world of investigative journalism and political scandal.
If you’ve seen the feature film, and it wasn’t more than a modest success, it is worth pointing out the additional strengths of the British original, and not just for the sake of bemoaning American remakes and all adaptations as inferior. There are a handful of very specific reasons why State of Play the miniseries trumps the worthwhile film.
First, Cal is younger than Stephen here, as opposed to the Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck friendship that began when the two were college roommates. Unless Crowe’s character took about a decade off before starting college, nobody is buying that. Instead, as Stephen’s former campaign manager, Cal had the access to the personal side of Stephen, but not the intricate knowledge of his private life.
Kelly MacDonald’s Della Smith isn’t some ingénue who needs to be taught by master reporter Cal, they’re colleagues that sit next to each other and work the same beats, participating equally in the story, just from different angles. James McAvoy plays Daniel Foster, son of the editor, who works tirelessly away from his father’s shadow, but gets drawn into the case by Cal and Della. This character was completely excised from the film, which was a damn shame, because here McAvoy demonstrates the same talent that helped him rise through the ranks as a film star. For my money, the biggest misstep the American film makes is making the investigation a two-reporter job with Crowe and Rachel McAdams. In the miniseries, the sprawling details of the case are a decidedly team effort, involving a roving band of reporters, interns, editors, detectives, and political advisors. Truly, the entire cast earns high marks across the board, and Yates direction is perfectly suited to this type of material: subtle enough to stay hidden during the big conversations, only noticeable in short bursts of action. It’s easy to see why he was chosen for bigger projects. He knew how to best let the story come to life on screen without getting in the way.
In the remake, Collins is gearing up to investigate private security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, beneficiaries of Defense Department contracts. It’s a zeitgeist move to solidify the plot in America, and one that doesn’t quite have the same global implications of the miniseries, where Collins is the chairman of a committee overseeing the oil industry. Over the course of the series, Abbot’s writing bounces around infectiously, focusing on reporter conferences, then to closed-door political party meetings, then to small character moments over coffee, all the while slowly turning up the heat.
The strangest change from the miniseries to the film is the insistence to devote screen time to debating the fall of “legitimate” newspaper journalism and the rise of blogging. Thankfully, the original was made in 2003, when these questions weren’t as much of an issue, so there are no grandstand positions on future of the medium, just a team of relentless reporters asking pointed questions, researching long into the night, and staying ahead of a story threatening to break out of control. The series doesn’t tout newspapers as a dying totem of society or bemoan blogs as the scourge that will devoir true journalism. State of Play is far more concerned with characters that slowly, methodically tease a story out of a few key pieces of information.
On a larger scale, it focuses on how institutions intersect and interact. When Cal obtains what amounts to a key piece of evidence connecting Kelvin’s murder to Sonia Baker, Cameron calls in a lawyer to determine approximately how long they can keep it before turning it over to the police. Della learns the ropes of how to use well-placed sources within law enforcement, and the DCI responsible for the investigation of Baker’s murder takes a long time to warm up to the idea that cooperation with the Herald may be in the best interest of his case. In one particularly wonderful scene, Detective Chief Inspector William Bell interrogates Cal, and his advice to the reporter illustrates the different ways they look at the swirling events surrounding the deaths of Baker and Stagg: "It's a case, not a story." That distinction is incredibly important when parsing out the roles of each institution. Journalists, police, and government officials all need each other, and one of the greatest strengths of State of Play is how it depicts the push and pull of trading favors and exclusive information. It’s a never-ending cycle, and one that Cal, Daniel, and Della use to their absolute advantage when uncovering each bit of new material.
The only element that still makes little sense is Cal’s romantic entanglement. It’s the only part of the series that feels rushed, and the only times when Cal defies logic and seems out of control of his situation. For a calculating and incisive reporter, love nearly ruins his story. It doesn’t help that those scenes are monstrously boring when separated from twists of the case. The only part of the plot that works involves a hotel room, a bodyguard, and a break-in. Otherwise, that subplot slows the pace to a crawl, when every other aspect of the series fires on all cylinders.
Adapting a British miniseries and cutting it down to feature length isn’t a new venture by any stretch. John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got the miniseries treatment in 1979, and is only now a forthcoming feature film. State of Play has a very high reputation almost a decade after it was first broadcast, and repeat viewing confirms its worthy status. Modern technology may render some of the scenes dated, but not as much as the altered details of the American film. As it stands, State of Play is a taut, expertly handled investigative drama that managed to intertwine reporters, police, and politicians into an endlessly compelling story that is gripping to the final frames. If you’ve never seen the series before, this is required viewing, but it’s also worthwhile for anyone who saw it around the time it was originally produced to sit down and take it in again. For all the things that have rapidly changed in journalism and politics, State of Play still cuts through the bullshit as a prescient, complicated, and ultimately honest piece of dramatic storytelling.