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TV Quickshots #4

TV Quickshots

State of Play (BBC; 2003)

Don't make me open my mouth. You'll regret it.

A fantastically intelligent and multifaceted BBC serial drama about a newspaper investigation into a tangled web of sex, money, political and corporate malfeasance, and murder, State of Play is television at its near-finest. Initially airing on the Beeb in 2003, it led to a compressed Hollywood film adaptation in 2009 (starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren) and presaged bigger gigs for some of its key principals: the thoroughly floppy James McAvoy’s swaggering supporting turn as a young freelance reporter began building his career momentum towards eventual big-screen leading-man status, and director David Yates’ masterly control of the complicated proceedings was a key point in the resume that scored him the plum gig as the resident director for the final four Harry Potter films.

Those proceedings are indeed complicated, transferring the ins and outs of detective fiction to the press as the latest surrogates of a fundamentally post-detective world. Although writer Paul Abbott and Yates never sugarcoat the labyrinthine plot elements in this way, things generally revolve around two deaths (the murder of a petty thief and the suspiciously concurrent “suicide” of a rising star MP’s junior researcher), a government energy report, and a flamboyant PR man (a very funny Marc Warren). I would hate to reveal any more plot than that, gladly leaving such lifting to Abbott’s delightful teleplay. I will say that it’s riveting entertainment, even if the climactic solution to the young researcher’s death is a definite disappointment after the fascinating and surprising five-and-a-half episode lead-up.

Superb script and spare, solid direction aside, watching a strong cast sink its thespianic teeth into this juicy cut of dramatic meat is the real pleasure of State of Play. John Simm (best known as the main man in the UK version of Life on Mars) is good enough as the lead reporter, even if his dalliance with the estranged wife of the besieged MP smacks of astoundingly poor ethical judgment. The always-reliable Kelly Macdonald (whose native Glasgow accent takes some re-acclimatizing after hearing her approximate a slight Irish lilt on Boardwalk Empire) is another stand out on the reporting team, even if she’s thrown fewer dramatic curveballs than Simm is. But the true conqueror is Bill Nighy as the newspaper’s irascible editor, spitting Abbott’s delicious witticisms out of his elongated jaw as if they taste absolutely nasty. Even amongst so many other excellent elements, Nighy can’t help but take the cake.

Mayday (Discovery Channel; 2003-Present)

Hot potato!

A very different sort of detective program is this Canadian-produced Discovery mainstay (called Air Crash Investigation in Britain and either Air Emergency or Air Disasters in the ever-literal United States). Generally explicating one aviation incident per episode on the basis of voice and data recorders, survivor and investigator testimony, and sometimes the best educated guesses of experts, Mayday takes its narrative cues from the flow of real events. The best episodes combine complex aviation jargon with a jigsaw puzzle of evidence and interpretation worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of which tends to be couched in the comically mawkish reenactments.

These corny scenes are entirely at the service of the mystère du jour, marked by shaking cameras, panicked screaming, hands reaching furtively across aisles, dropped and/or charred children’s toys, and other such melodramatic tropes. There are also sequences featuring actors portraying investigators (actors playing flight crew and passengers are usually far more attractive than their real-life counterparts, actors playing investigators far less) who utter lines of deadpan exposition that land like lead zeppelins (no need to investigate the reasons that those don’t stay airborne). “Why was the APU on?” an actor playing a NTSB agent may ask, although for the regular viewer, made virtually pilot-savvy by many episodes’ worth of Mayday’s patient exposition, the question is entirely rhetorical (“it wasn’t the APU, it was the damaged rudder, you laggard!”).

Not every episode is such a solid approximation of detective fiction, mind you. Those portraying hijackings in particular lather on the Hollywood-thriller tension, operating as they are under the mystery-defusing dearth of clues and deduction. They slip into bathos all too easily. But when Mayday skews closer to its aviation Holmes essence, it is, as I like to say, rather infotaining.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. December 13, 2014 at 4:13 pm

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