February 14, 2007 | Comments ()

By Seth Freilich | TV | February 14, 2007 |


Every year, I seem to discover a couple of gems over on BBC America, both new and old. Last year’s British gems, for me, were “Rocket Man,” “Ed vs. Spencer,” and “Spaced.” This Saturday, BBC America starts airing the first of its 2007 Brit gems, “The State Within.”

Imagine that you’re a BBC producer, and your boss comes in and says, “Right guv’nor, we need a version of ‘24,’ because the Yanks seem to eat that bloody show up. We want you to put this together jointly with BBC America, so we can market it on both sides of the pond. What’ve you got?” In responding, you might put together a laundry-list of what the British “24” would need: No real-time, as that’s a typical American one-trick pony; terrorism, obviously; a lot of domestic and foreign politics; the military complex; the British Embassy (because it probably needs to be set in the U.S. for marketability to the Americans, so this is the best way to work in some proper British folk); moles; assassinations; secret agencies; a touch of preachy moral platitudes; a lot of dead bodies; and last, but most important, a lot less action and a lot more talking.

I think you can guess where I’m going here — this list is exactly what you’ve got with “The State Within,” a complex six-hour tale of terrorism and international politics set mostly in Washington, D.C. The show starts off in typical “24” fashion, with a terrorist-induced bloodbath — a British Muslim extremist blows up a plane heading from D.C. to London, just after take-off, leading to much wreckage strewn across a D.C. freeway. This strains what is already, in the show’s universe, a slightly rocky relationship between the United States and England, which plants Sir Mark Brydon, England’s D.C. ambassador, squarely in the middle of the muck.

Sir Mark is not another Jack Bauer. He does get to see a little action here and there, but he’s not a badass — he’s a diplomat, a political creature. As he himself notes later in the series, political machinations and wrangling are what he does best. In the fallout of the plane’s explosion, Sir Mark finds himself suddenly embroiled in a complete web of shit, largely revolving around Tyrgyztan (a fictional former Soviet state just north of Afghanistan). This web of shit leads Sir Mark, among other places, to the West Wing and the Defense Department, where he must have extensive dealings with Lynn Warner, the Secretary of Defense. (Warner is the highest-ranking U.S. official portrayed in the show, which goes out of its way to make both the President and the British Prime Minister oft-referred-to people whom we never actually see, bodiless entities aware of and overseeing everything but never directly involved in a hands-on fashion.)

To tell you much more about the story would be to take away from the show’s strongest element, its intricate and sometimes confusing-as-hell plotline. It took about two hours into the show before I finally felt like I had a good grasp on most of what was going on, although there was still one character confusing the shit out of me — I couldn’t understand his motivations or, sometimes, what he was even doing, and I was therefore left unsure as to whether he was a good guy, a bad guy, or a “me first” guy. But I put a little faith in the show and that faith was eventually rewarded — by the end, I understood virtually everything that had taken place (with the exception of one nit-picky detail) and, in retrospect, even this character’s actions were fully explained.

Of course, the best of plots can be killed by hackneyed acting, but luckily that’s not the case here. Jason Isaacs, as Sir Mark, is probably most recognizable on this side of the pond as baddie wizard Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. But here he plays quite a different role as a basically good guy who’s put into a situation that he’s largely in the dark about. Isaacs delivers a terrific performance, morphing wonderfully between the various roles Sir Mark ultimately plays: established diplomat, concerned friend, caring nationalist, reluctant hero, broken man, etc. A similarly great performance is delivered by Ben Daniels as the British Counselor of External Affairs, who is essentially Sir Mark’s number-two guy (and the aforementioned character of sometimes questionable motivations). And in what is initially an apparently disparate storyline, Lennie James (the mysterious black guy on “Jericho”) is rock-solid as Luke Gardner, a former Faulklands hero (which, as one character notes, “means shit here”) now sitting on Florida’s death row.

Most of the other performances, while not quite up to the caliber of these three, are still quite strong. In fact, there are only two roles that really didn’t hold up. One is an FBI agent who pops up here and there, and there’s just something about the performance that didn’t work for me. Not terrible; there was just something off about it. The other performance , however, was borderline terrible, which is surprising since the actress shares top billing along with Isaacs and will probably be the most recognizable face to many U.S. viewers. The British reviews from last year say that Sharon Gless (you may remember her as the non-Tyne Daly half of “Cagney & Lacey”) is terrific as Secretary of Defense Warner. You know, sometimes there are elements of British culture that remain lost on me, and if Gless’ performance was terrific, this must be one such element. I just didn’t see it. Half of the time, Gless was simply “good enough.” But the other half of the time, whenever she was called upon to be a Rumsfeldian hardass, a Rumsfeldian indignant or a Rumsfeldian smug prick, she was almost laughable. And it’s not that I don’t think that a chick could’ve pulled off the necessary depth and gravitas of the role — cast someone like Judi Dench (with an American accent, natch), Joan Allen or Glenn Close, and this role could have been a tour de force. But Gless just doesn’t seem to have the requisite acting chops.

That this does not ultimately take away from the show is a testament to the strength of the storyline. You do have to be willing to go along for the ride, but if you are, you’ll be well rewarded. And I don’t mean this in the same way that you have to be willing to go along with the “24” ride, leaving your disbelief at the door. Instead, I mean you have to be willing to really listen and pay attention to a tightly wound plot, and be willing to be patient with its slow unraveling, including the fact that it starts off with at lest four seemingly unrelated plot threads.

Although, and this is the show’s only other flaw, you will need some of that “24” suspension of disbelief for the last hour. While the plot wraps up rather well, it only does so with the help of at least one highly unlikely coincidence, one actual Jack Bauer moment (which made me laugh out loud at the fact that it was both totally ridiculous yet pretty cool), and a single plot element that ultimately remains unexplained, putting a slight question around the whole affair (although only a nitpicker like myself is likely to question this point). It’s a shame that the last hour goes in this direction because there is none of this in the first five hours, and piling it on in the conclusion detracts a little from the overall strength and quality of the show. But it doesn’t take much away from the show’s quality, and it takes away nothing from the entertainment value.

“The State Within” was originally a six-episode show over on the BBC, but BBC America appears to be airing it in three blocks instead. However, with each block set at two-and-a-half hours, for just shy of two hours of actual content, it would appear that nothing will be left out (although one wonders if they’ll clean any of the language or the late-in-the-run female nipple shot). BBC America starts airing the show this Saturday (February 17) at 9 p.m., and I believe it will air over the next three weeks, with several re-airings. While you can watch each of the three parts on their own, I highly recommend recording the whole shebang and watching it in one marathon viewing. Six hours may be a lot to invest at one time for a show, but once you start watching, you’re really going to want to have all six hours at your immediate beck and call, as you’ll find it hard to patiently wait for what comes next.


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Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He is currently wondering what it would take to become a diplomat, because that whole diplomatic immunity thing seems like it would be pretty bloody handy.

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Everything's Better with a British Accent

"The State Within" / The TV Whore
Feb. 14, 2007

TV | February 14, 2007 | Comments ()



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