Before Ben Affleck was politician Stephen Collins and Russell Crowe was his reporter buddy Cal McCaffrey, there were David Morrissey and John Simm originating the roles in the 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play. Six years later, there’s no doubt most American audiences probably won’t even realize the film remake’s origins, and like most American adaptations of British programming – even the good ones – the original demands to be seen.
This highly complex, thoroughly dense, and consistently gripping six-part TV series represents the best of thinking person’s entertainment. The labyrinthine plot twists and turns endlessly until the conclusion, but it never loses its way by trying to merely confuse its audience. The characters are engaging, and the cast represents strongly across the board, but Paul Abbott’s scripts are certainly the masterpiece here.
Collins is an up-and-coming politician, but his world is seemingly shattered when news that his research assistant fell to her death in the Underground comes to light. The press immediately seizes on his emotional response as evidence of an affair, and the journalists descend en masse on a story that is nowhere near the full truth. Meanwhile, a teenage kid suspected to be dealing drugs is shot in an alleyway – a story that gets little attention, but might contain clues to unraveling the larger mystery that surrounds both events.
At the center of it all is the staff of The Herald, led by veteran reporter McCaffrey, who smells a rat from almost the very beginning, and has connections thanks to his former position as Collins’ campaign manager many years ago. The always dependable Bill Nighy is excellent as the cantankerous editor-in-chief, and Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy both offer up solid supporting performances as reporters who help crack the case.
State of Play is probably the most exciting journalism thriller since All the President’s Men, and like that film, it shows the process of tracking down the right sources for a story to be just as exhilarating as the best action sequences in more typical films of its type.
As the story unfolds, Abbott isn’t afraid to pack in lots of exposition to get the wheels of the story moving, but it never feels like too much, even though, admittedly, you better be paying close attention from go, or you’re in danger of finding yourself lost along the way. By the second or third episode, character development also begins to be expertly fleshed out, giving us a cast of characters that aren’t just set pieces in the midst of a compelling tale.
It takes time to digest just one of the hour-long episodes, meaning it might be better to not plan for a straight-through marathon, although it likely will be tempting. State of Play is the kind of superlative television that the Brits are known for – is it any wonder that we Americans keep re-packaging their ideas?
The State of Play DVD contains all six episodes of the series on two discs. The only special features are commentary tracks on the first and last episodes of the series – Abbott and director David Yates on the first, and Yates, producer Hilary Bevan Jones, and editor Mark Day on the last.