The fact that David Yates’ and Paul Abbot’s 2003 miniseries State of Play is as gripping and fast-paced a thriller as one could hope for will probably come as no surprise whatsoever to British readers, but it will to the majority of Americans. Five years after the fact, after all the major players have gone on to very successful transatlantic careers, and after every writer in Hollywood has taken a crack at the notoriously problematic American movie remake, BBC finally let the series slip out onto Region 1 DVD a few months ago with none of the fanfare it deserves. I hope it does somehow find its way into American DVD players, because this is television at its finest–and I can’t possibly imagine a watered-down, feature-length remake with Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe will do it justice. (Although Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan’s original draft created a lot of great buzz in this town.)
State of Play follows a team of London newspaper reporters as their investigation of two seemingly unrelated deaths and a politician’s infidelity lead them to uncover industrial espionage at the highest levels and a vast conspiracy involving government and big business. That’s about all I’d really like to reveal about the plot, because it’s pure joy to watch it unfold, and I wouldn’t dare spoil that. All of the characters are compelling, even those with the smallest parts, and the acting is uniformly superb. Bill Nighy steals the show as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, and it’s a very difficult show to steal because everyone is excellent. Kelly Macdonald (who really should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her performance in No Country For Old Men) and the now-ubiquitous James McAvoy do great work as reporters following the trail, and John Simm ably carries the weight of the series on his shoulder as their team leader, Cal McCaffrey. David Morissey gives a laudably nuanced performance as the miniseries’ most complex character, politician Stephen Collins. His marital transgressions are revealed early on, but he manages to create a layered and even sympathetic character out of that most loathsome of cliches, the philandering politician. Rome’s Polly Walker is equally excellent as his betrayed, conflicted wife, who develops an overly close relationship with her husband’s friend, reporter McCaffrey. (Who is, of course, on the story, and therefore setting himself up for an extreme conflict of interest!)
State of Play gives a rare insight into the tactics used by members of a dying profession: print journalists. The reporter teams in State of Play actually use some of the same tactics as the spooks on that other gem of current British television, MI-5, following a potential person of interest in teams (leading to some similar setpieces to MI-5), adopting false identities on the fly, and even "turning" policemen, doctors and coroners to act as their sources, just like MI-5's agents. I never connected the similarities between spies and investigative journalists before seeing this show! Most likely, that’s because I’d never seen a movie or miniseries about journalists before that constantly maintains the pace and suspense of a good spy movie. (I suppose All the President’s Men comes close.)
State of Play is a near-perfect blend of intense character drama, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and crackling performances by top-notch actors told at a breathtaking clip. While the espionage may be minimal (although crucial to the plot), there is as much to recommend for spy fans in State of Play as there is in MI-5, or any other top-shelf contemporary spy drama. It’s no wonder that director David Yates and all the primary cast members have gone onto such success; they all earn it in State of Play.
The only extras on BBC’s DVD are commentaries on the first and last episode from Yates, Abbot and producer Hilary Bevan Jones. There are a few good tidbits and a vaguely uncomfortable amount of extras-bashing, but overall the participants come off a little on the self-indulgent side. Like their success, though, the remarkable quality of State of Play has earned them the right to a little self-indulgence!