Is State of Play the best miniseries ever?

Photo by Sarah Cords.

Great series and long-running programs are not the only shows that are better in Great Britain. I also love their literary adaptations and their miniseries–programs that run from four to six episodes or so (and which are sometimes, but not always, literary adaptations).

One of my favorites of all time is the 2003 drama/thriller State of Play, written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates. So today (and in a new series) I’d like to run down the case for why I think State of Play (here’s the trailer) is the best miniseries ever.

What’s it about? (Spoiler free.)

State of Play is a twisty-turny political suspense thriller that centers on two (seemingly unrelated) deaths: the accidental death of a political staffer named Sonia Baker, and the shooting death of a teenager who we first see running from an unknown assailant.

Of course the deaths are related, and are further related to the political career of new-ish MP Stephen Collins, a mover and shaker who has clearly been pegged by political party bosses as a rising star (and one who is currently taking on corrupt and corrupting oil and energy companies). When it starts to become clear that these deaths are part of a larger narrative, the press also gets involved: the paper that’s most interested in the story employs a journalist, Cal McCaffrey, who was once Collins’s campaign manager.

Is there a story? What is it? Who’s telling the truth, and how many more people are going to have to die before the whole story comes out?


Who’s in it?

The major players are as follows: David Morrissey as Stephen Collins; John Simm as Cal McCaffrey; Bill Nighy as news editor Cameron Foster; Polly Walker as Anne Collins (wife of the politician); and Kelly Macdonald and James McAvoy as journalists Della Smith and Dan Foster (yes, prodigal son of the editor played by Nighy).

Why is it the best miniseries ever?

Well, let’s run down the case.

Story (spoiler free): The series was written by Paul Abbott, who went on to massive success writing the comic drama Shameless. In my opinion Abbott truly shines as character and dialogue, but he can also craft a hell of a story. Honestly? I’m not even sure I grasped the nuance of every twist and plot point that happened over the six episodes (and I’ve seen it at least twice). But I know this: if you go looking for plot holes, they’re not easy to find. It’s superbly plotted and calculated for maximum cliffhanger drama at the end of each episode (which normally I find annoying, in books and TV shows), but in a miniseries I have to respect structuring that leads you so breathlessly from one tiny little personal, political, or journalistic nuance to another.

Characters/Actors: The cast is top-notch. All the main players are stellar, of course (has anyone ever given Bill Nighy bad notices for anything?), but even the supporting cast is populated with unique characters who are played well by their actors, including Amelia Bullmore as political journalist Helen Preger and even Rebekah Staton in an extremely bit part, as an administrative assistant at the newspaper, who makes a big impression in just a few minutes onscreen.

Eye Candy/Chemistry: I don’t want to give too much away, but a romance develops between reporter Cal (John Simm) and another character, and it is pitch perfect, from Cal’s tortured first awareness and indications of his attraction to the woman. Their first physical moments together are so sexually charged that I think I stopped blinking while I watched them. (I emphatically do not agree with this The AV Club writer, who found the romance bits in question “monstrously boring.”) John Simm may not be your stereotypical eye candy, but he’s magnetic, and there’s just a lot to enjoy when he (and the also extremely photogenic and charismatic) David Morrissey are onscreen together.


And then there’s James McAvoy. Shockingly, he was so young when he played this role (23 or 24) that I can’t actually view him as anything but a child, but gosh, he’s cute. And his character is extremely saucy. The character plays very well against his gruff father, as played by Bill Nighy, who makes him work twice as hard as all the other journalists for his place on the story.

Wow, I’ve got to stop there, even though we haven’t even talked about Philip Glenister as a police detective. Philip Glenister is awesome. (And would go on to again play opposite John Simm, to great effect, in the 2006 time-bending police procedural Life on Mars).

And one bonus takeaway: I can’t really watch Shameless (written by Abbott), it’s too much harsh reality for me, even when it’s meant to be comedic. But goddamn, Paul Abbott. Paul Abbott as a writer personifies everything that I love so about the Brits and British TV. Just when you think it’s dark, it turns out it’s even darker than you thought, but in a way that makes total heartbreaking sense (if you’re the type of person who thinks humans, while being very nice people, are kind of a mess). The ending of this puppy is as un-American as it gets. The bad guys are bad but not quite as bad as you think they are, mainly just run of the mill “men in power” bad. The real bad guy is caught, but it turns out he was mainly bad because he misunderstood some things and got a little caught up in defending his pride. It’s all wrapped up, justice is served, the story is printed: but nobody really ends up all that happy.

State of Play is the best miniseries ever.

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