State of Play (2003)


Our rating: 2 out of 5

Rated: TVMA

reviewed by Charity Bishop

One of the most-awarded miniseries in the history of British television, State of Play features an all-star BBC cast and some of the most intelligent writing I have ever encountered.


The press office is buzzing because a young woman connected to a local branch of government has been found dead on the train tracks. Everyone assumes it is suicide until her affair with up-and-coming politician Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) is discovered. The news hits the front page and infuriates his wife Anne (Polly Walker). Collins' former campaign manager and friend-turned-journalist Cal McCaffrey (John Simm) is asked to look into the event, but is also intrigued with a murder that took place across town around the same time. A young black man was shot in the head and another man presumed to have been an unintentional witness has landed in the hospital with severe internal injuries. At first there is no connection but then Cal and his intelligent associate Della (Kelly Macdonald) find a common thread.


Working with the police and behind their backs, juggling his relationship with the Collins', and attempting to track down all leads -- which includes hiring freelancer Dan Foster (James McAvoy) and luring in a top suspect (Marc Warren), Cal soon is in way over his head -- but his editor (Bill Nighy) wants the headline. The result is a six-hour-long miniseries with exceptional pacing and numerous twists and turns. Just when you sort-of figure something out a new piece of information is thrown at you. There are more characters than you can shake a stick at but all of them leave an impression, from the secretary at the front desk who constantly complains that she has been left out, to the eccentricities of law enforcement. There are chases and narrow escapes, attempted assassinations and blatant lies. There's even a content-loaded briefcase that might be the key to solving the entire thing...


However, despite all of its brilliance, I find the series difficult to recommend. The first three episodes are not bad but over the course of the entire six hours is a lot of repeat use of the f-word, along with a dozen or so harsh abuses of deity and other profanities (both English and non). There is also adultery (implied, and explicitly shown) between two of the "good" characters -- flirtatious kissing and touching early on eventually gives way to two graphic sex scenes. The audience never knows if the woman is doing it for revenge against her husband or not, but it makes it difficult to like or support either of them. Violence is also startlingly gruesome -- the opening features a man being graphically shot through the head; blood spatters the wall behind him. Several other people are shot and/or killed.


The cast is brilliant. Normally I see John Simms as a deranged lunatic (he was the hilarious-but-evil Master in Doctor Who's third season, and I have seen him elsewhere as Caligula) and it was wonderful to see him as a mild-mannered, methodical reporter. Macdonald is always adorable and here has a lot of chemistry not only with him, but the police officers that she spends much of her screen time with. Nighy does well with dramatic roles with a hint of sarcasm to them and the role of editor suits him very well. One minor twist involving him and another character is both funny and endearing. My only real complaint apart from the content is that the series can be difficult to follow if you are not paying close attention and there are some things that go unexplained in the end. Nothing so significant as to ruin the viewing experience but still worth mentioning.