White Heat debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. Eastern.
It’s been more than 30 years since John Sayles’ The Return Of The Secaucus 7 inadvertently sparked a subgenre that might be called the “boomer regret” film. First there was the slick and rather blatant rip-off, The Big Chill, and later Forrest Gump—movies in which some kind of personal trauma elicits misty water-colored memories of The Turbulent 1960s and the disillusion that followed in the wake of that idealistic era. By now, the decade has become the most over-examined 10-year span in pop-culture history, with so much that was truly revolutionary about those years having long since calcified into hokey clichés—the daisy-wielding war protesters, the acid trips, the bra-burning. In the popular imagination, the ’60s made it possible for the decadence of the ’70s, and the reckoning came with the dawn of AIDS and the chaste, “Just Say No” ’80s.
It’s a reductive but irresistible narrative, one that’s proven to be at least as enticing to television producers as it has to various filmmakers. BBC America's six-part series, White Heat, is pop culture’s latest attempt to tell the story of the past decade through personal narratives. The story opens in the present day, as the former occupants of a North London flat reunite after the death of one of their roommates. As the estranged friends gradually trickle back into their old home, having not seen each other in years, questions emerge: Which flatmate has died, why did he (or she) die alone, and what happened to create such lingering tension between these former friends?
The first to arrive at the flat is Charlotte (played in the present day by Juliet Stevenson and in flashback by Claire Foy). As she sorts through the apartment, the series rewinds to the very beginning: It’s 1965, and, as a virginal but open-minded college student, Charlotte responds to a listing for an apartment in Tufnell Park. Jack (Sam Claflin) is an arrogant rebel hoping to turn his modest house into a kind of social experiment. “We have a chance to prove there’s an alternative socioeconomic model other than the nuclear bloody family,” he declares modestly. It’s not a commune, exactly, but it is an unconventional living situation, especially when it comes to sex. Per Jack’s decree, no one is allowed to sleep with the same person for more than three consecutive nights. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Charlotte agrees to live in the flat, as do five other impossibly diverse young people: Victor (David Gyasi), a quietly dignified Jamaican law student; Orla (Jessica Gunning), a chubby Irish psychology student and part-time maid; Lily (MyAnna Buring), an aspiring artist from a working-class Northern family; Jay (Reece Ritchie), a gay Indian medical student; and fastidious geek Alan (Lee Ingleby).
From there, the series hopscotches through the years, with each episode picking up, “We Didn’t Start The Fire”-style, at a time of political turmoil. (These flashbacks are punctuated occasionally by present-day sequences.) This being a British series, there is an emphasis on domestic situations like The Troubles and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. As happens in these kinds of shows, each character has his or her own very personal connection to the broader social and political upheaval of the era. Charlotte’s budding feminism is a direct result of her mother’s unhappy marriage and ensuing mental illness, while Jack’s devotion to labor activism stems from resentment of his father, a Tory MP. Then there’s Orla, who learns that her brother has been executed by the IRA when she flips on the TV one evening.
This is the kind of show where you know something historic is about to happen anytime someone reaches for the TV, glances at a newspaper, or tunes in to the radio. As a result, it’s unlikely that White Heat’s focus on British history will be alienating to the American viewer; alas, this series doesn’t dig that deep. In fact, White Heat can be pretty sloppy with the details. Charlotte, for instance, has a poster on her wall reading “the political is personal” in 1965, several years before the women’s movement was in full swing and this slogan would have been in widespread use. Similarly, Jack has the infamous “Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No” Draft Resistance ad on his wall a full year before it was actually produced. Where is Matthew Weiner when you need him?
But the real problem with the series isn’t the haphazard history—it’s the utter implausibility of the friendships it depicts. There’s little sense of real connection or camaraderie between the roommates, and they are not so much fully realized characters as schematic symbols of their class and ethnic identities. The show’s ham-fisted dialogue, full of lines like “What we share isn’t about bourgeois concept of romantic love” and “We’ll never get equality in the boardroom until we get it in the bedroom” certainly doesn’t help flesh them out. As the years drag on, you start to wonder why these people are still living together—especially in a transient place like London—and, indeed, why they’re even friends.
White Heat owes a considerable debt—and, if we're being honest, probably some option fees—to Our Friends In The North, the hugely popular 1996 BBC miniseries about, um, the lives of four friends from the mid-’60s to the ’90s. (While we’re citing possible influences, there’s also Jonathan Coe’s book turned-television-series, The Rotters’ Club.) Yet despite its derivative, unconvincing narrative and “greatest hits” approach to history, White Heat is also strangely watchable. The central mystery—just what drove these friends apart?—is, undoubtedly, a gimmick, but it’s also an effective one. A large part of the credit goes to the extravagantly talented cast, especially to Foy, who plays Charlotte with the same vulnerable hauteur she brought to the recent Upstairs Downstairs revival, and Gyasi, who adds some nuance to a role that is essentially another incarnation of the “Magical Negro.” You’ll roll your eyes and groan at White Heat, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll also keep watching.