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State of Play

directed by David Yates

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 08, 2013
Category: Drama

The editor in “State of Play” — I mean the original version, not the dumbed-down flop of a remake starring Russell Crowe — is determined, principled and witty, just what you expect from a Brit editor. He knows that Little People do the dirty work while the Mr. Bigs maintain their innocence. And he knows there’s money, Murdoch-level money, that hums just below the surface, coloring every transaction.

Is a six-part BBC mini-series worth $27.99 on Amazon? Do the math — it costs less than $5 an hour. A bargain. And ask yourself: When was the last time you watched six hours of anything and found yourself moving closer to the edge of your seat as it moved toward its conclusion?

That is the experience you’ll have if you start watching “State of Play,” a BBC mini-series that was broadcast in England in 2003 and later, to an assuredly smaller audience in the United States, on BBC’s American channel. Now’s it’s a cult favorite on DVD. [To buy “State of Play” from Amazon.com, click here.]

“State of Play” starts simply. Sonia Baker falls to her death in the London subway — ooops, tube — station. Did she fall? Commit suicide? Or was she… pushed?

That’s the last simple question in the mini-series. For, that same day, a kid gets killed in another part of London. No connection. Not possible, really — Sonia Baker was a young research assistant to Steven Collins, chairman of the prestigious Energy Select Committee. The kid? A nobody.

At the newspaper, investigative reporter Cal McCaffrey and his colleagues start to dig. It just happens that Cal was once the campaign manager for Steven Collins. And has long had a crush on Collins’ wife. A meaningless detail? Not when Cal learns that his old friend was having an affair with the research assistant — and that Collins might have been planning to leave his wife for her.

From here, the complications multiply exponentially. For into the mix come politics, international oil companies and the corporate concerns of the paper’s owners, to say nothing of their personal and professional conflicts. Add the romantic triangle, and the stew pot overflows. Smarties will love trying to stay current and think ahead.

Paul Abbott is an astonishingly great screenwriter; there’s not a flat character in the series. Cal seems troubled and underwhelming at the start; his hair is dirty and uncombed, and he has a penchant for liquor in mini-bar bottles — watch him grow before your eyes. His editor is played by Bill Nighy; he may look like Peter O’Toole’s son, but he’s as tough as Ben Bradlee. Cal’s closest colleague is young and female. In an American production, she’d be a hottie; here, she’s from Scotland, and her accent is sufficiently thick that you may want to activate the subtitles.

And the dialogue! When the cops show up in the newsroom, the editor is wonderfully arch: ”If you want to talk to busy people, it is best to make an appointment. Otherwise, you risk disappointment.” Later, when reporters ask if they can run the story, he deadpans: “How much paper do you think you’ll need?”

After the first episode, the reviewer for The Guardian wrote that “State of Play” is “bloody magic…If you can count the best dramas of recent years on the fingers of both hands, it’s time to grow a new finger.”

Typical British understatement.

This one’s worth owning, if only to loan it to one grateful friend at a time.