In the late ’90s, NBC launched an ad campaign to try to boost the image, and viewership numbers, for repeats, by boasting, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” At the time, I soundly mocked the slogan, as was my moral obligation as a television critic.
Today, though, the idea seems much less bogus. We live in an age where there’s more original programming – and good programming, at that – than even a professional TV watcher can ever hope to get to. And we live in an age where there are so many ways to see shows, past and present, that no one’s limited solely to watching what’s on right now. (Whenever you hear a bell ring, it means that someone is watching season 1 of “The Wire” for the first time on DVD.)
Tomorrow night at 10, BBC America presents a good case in point by rerunning “State of Play,” a miniseries from 2003 (it first aired in America in early 2004) about a group of newspaper reporters who get caught up in a wide-reaching political conspiracy.
Back in the day, “State of Play” was universally praised by critics on both sides of the pond, but I wasn’t one of them, because for reasons I can’t recall, I never got around to watching it. (Skimming The Star-Ledger’s archives from the week it premiered in America suggests I was devoting a lot of time and mental energy to the first season of “The Apprentice,” which means 2011 Alan has a whole lot to teach 2004 Alan.) For a long time, I kept the VHS screener BBC America had sent (this is how long ago it was), but never got around to it, despite the raves I kept hearing from friends and colleagues.
So when BBC America scheduled a repeat of the six episodes as part of its new Wednesday “Dramaville” line-up, I still hadn’t seen it, and it was still new to me.
And I watched it – and it was every bit as bloody fantastic as I’d been promised so many years before.
The series stars a murder’s row of British TV actors from the time; the cast is so loaded that a very young, baby-faced James McAvoy doesn’t even get mentioned in the opening credits. (A similarly youthful Kelly Macdonald does, however.) John Simm, who would re-team with “State of Play” co-star Philip Glenister in the original “Life on Mars,” plays Cal McCaffrey, hotshot reporter for one of London’s biggest newspapers, and old friend to rising political star Stephen Collins (David Morrissey). When Collins’ mistress dies in what appears to be a subway accident, Cal has access that the rest of the fourth estate would kill to get – especially once it becomes clear that there was no accident, and that the mistress’ death connects to a huge conspiracy involving the government and a major energy conglomerate. And there’s tension in every conversation Cal has with Stephen, and Stephen’s wife Anne (Polly Walker), because they’re usually looking at him as a friend and he’s always looking at them as sources, even though he likes them.
Simm and Morrissey are both tremendous, as are Macdonald (now playing Mrs. Schroder on “Boardwalk Empire”) and McAvoy as young reporters whose stories wind up tying in with what Cal is up to. But Bill Nighy walks away with the production as newspaper editor Cameron Foster, a very wise, very careful, very charming man who’s always figuring out the angles as the story keeps changing and expanding. As with his more recent turn in PBS’ “Page Eight,” Nighy is brilliantly minimalist, rarely so much as raising his voice and yet saying so much with the tiniest little change in expression. (He is also, unsurprisingly, dryly hilarious when the occasion calls for it.)
Cameron, and the story in general, suggest a period that should be much older than eight years; it has more in common with the days of “All the President’s Men” than what the world of journalism looks like today. The newspaper is flush, fully staffed and able to throw tens of thousands of dollars at what seems like a very sketchy story at first, and there are no hints of the massive cuts most papers would have to make shortly thereafter. (The 2009 movie version, with Russell Crowe as Cal and Ben Affleck as Stephen, had trouble compressing six hours of story into two, but it was recent enough to acknowledge the sweeping changes in the industry.)
“State of Play” was created by Paul Abbott, who wrote for and/or created “Cracker,” “Shameless” and “Touching Evil” (all of which had their own US adaptations, to varying degrees of creative success), and directed by David Yates, who parlayed the gig into directing the last four Harry Potter films. It’s a tour de force: gripping suspense, engaging mystery, unexpected bursts of dark comedy, and even some mournful romance, on top of how colorfully it captured the world of investigative journalism. (In one of the better exchanges, Cal tells a homicide cop that they have to work together to advance the story, and the irritated cop replies, “It’s a case, not a story.”) I know some quibbled with the ending at the time, suggesting Abbott came up with it at the last minute, but it works well enough with all the genius that came before that I’m fine with it.
As I sat through the six one-hour installments, I kept kicking myself for not popping the screener into my VCR back in 2004. Then I realized that, where I’m often jealous of people watching “Deadwood” or “The Shield” for the first time, for once I got to belatedly see a great piece of work through virgin eyes.
I hadn’t seen it, so it was new to me. And it was fantastic. Better late than never.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Because this is an old miniseries that many of you have already seen, discussion of any and all of it is fair game in the comments. If it’s new to you, just watch it tomorrow and don’t read below.