Hugh Laurie stars as Peter Laurence, a British politician besieged by scandal: some current, some decades old. But despite being weighed down by baggage, Laurence is very much a man on the move. The brilliance of Roadkill is that, until the series’ final scenes, you have no idea if you’re watching his ascent or his fall.
As Laurie plays him, Peter Laurence has that quality the public loves: a gift for seeming sincere, which permits his constituents — with their willfully short attention spans — to forgive even his most recent duplicities. People are forever stopping him on the street to ask for a selfie; he’s the closest thing to a celebrity they have. His well-kept look – with just the right touch of modesty — suggests someone who cares about people as much as he does about appearances. He’s a well-groomed man who looks like he can’t help but get involved; he’s tailor-made for politics. And indeed, Laurence does have some issues he genuinely cares about: some honorable and even noble — and some dangerous if not wholly destructive. But he has an air of unflappability that’s altogether attractive, and a gift for self-preservation and a belief in his own core convictions — or lack thereof — that you can’t help but find admirable.
Laurie is beyond reproach, and as the current Prime Minister, Helen McCrory serves up a no-holds-barred performance (at times, I couldn’t help but think, channeling Bette Davis) that was, in its way, more sheer fun than anything I’ve seen on television this year. McCrory shows the calculation behind every pronouncement, the pleasure behind every takedown, and the potential ruin behind every misstep. With one brief exception at the start, we’re never permitted to see the character’s public side: we’re never allowed to witness what made her so appealing to her constituents (as well as to the private interests she serves). But it’s unnecessary. McCrory exudes the kind of confidence and charisma that make her character seem a natural fit for office.
Laurie and McCrory anchor the series, but its reach extends far beyond these two. It extends far beyond just about anything I’ve seen. Its scope is ambitious, to say the least. It annoyed me, as I perused critics and viewers’ comments, to see the occasional dismissive remark like “it treads familiar ground” or the presumption — after one preview episode or (in the case of Twitter) ten minutes of viewing — that Hare’s point was “politics is a dirty business.“ That’s a reduction that’s a little infuriating. (I feel like critics and viewers these days too often default to presumptions of familiarity.) The question Hare is asking here is: who holds the power in government? In the case of Roadkill, is it the newly appointed Minister of Justice — or the senior advisor trading away his secrets for sex and access? Is it the think tanks and lobbyists, who can influence public opinion as easily as they purchase politicians? Is it the eager journalist and the weathered editor, both devoted to justice and the truth, or the old money, old-school publisher who’s insistent on preserving her status and her connections? Is it the lowliest of employees, committed — through whatever means it takes — to bettering their stations? Or is it the family members who long ago sold their souls, who are holding tight to whatever measure of self-respect they can retain? It’s a landscape where everyone is thirsting for control, and the least likely people seem to be obtaining and manipulating it.
Roadkill paints a broad canvas: not merely of politicians, but of their allies and enemies in the legal system and in the press; it explores the goals they set and exposes the compromises they make. None of Hare’s characters — however brief their appearance — feel like the stock characters of TV dramas. There’s a scene early on in the newspaper editor‘s office, in which the reporter who ran with a story about Lawrence’s dirty dealings — that resulted in a lawsuit, which the paper ultimately lost — is being let go. There are four people in the room, it’s a short scene, and by the end of it you feel as if you have a handle on all of them: their passions, their temperaments and what makes them tick. And most important, what makes them singular. And mind you, most of these are supporting players you rarely see again, but when you do, you instantly remember who they are, what they stand for, and what we’re to make of them. Hare has the playwright’s gift for characterization, and the screenwriter’s swiftness of approach. As I was watching this trenchant teleplay unfold, I thought of all the contemporaries and successors Hare puts to shame.
Near the end, as Laurence’s fate is being decided, he appears on a radio show: the last of several broadcasts he’ll do during the course of the four-hour drama. (It’s a clever way of disguising and furthering the exposition.) The host is eager for a summary of the last few months of Laurence‘s life, which have seen major upheavals. “Politics in the 21st century is more volatile,” Laurence replies, equal parts silky and sincere. “Things move faster, that’s a fact. That’s just the world we’re living in.” It’s a terrific declaration, because it’s so evocative of Laurence’s ability to say little while seeming to offer insight — to cloak events in a way that absolves him of responsibility, that ignores and masks his own machinations. You know his constituents are buying it, and you recognize it as a lie. In Roadkill, politics is a weighty business, encumbered by more players than ever: many of them quite capable of grinding government to a halt. It takes a whole lot of effort and attentiveness to accomplish nothing. Hare envisions a world in which you need to be fast on your feet or you’re swept aside — in which you need to keep running merely to remain in place.
And as a result, Hare’s teleplay helps explain some of the biggest political riddles of the last five years, in the UK and here in the States, without actually referencing them. It explains why none of the gaffes that Donald Trump made during his candidacy took him down, as pundits predicted. It explains why the media continues to make excuses for him, and to hide information that could destroy him. It explains BREXIT and the rise of Boris Johnson. It explains how both countries failed so dismally to contain COVID, and how Johnson‘s senior aide could disregard the rules so willfully and, despite the backlash, suffer no fallout. It explains why the unpopular keep rising to power, and why constituents have become so jaded. And in its pre-apocalyptic, post-dystopian vision, this heady and invigorating drama explains why we are all quietly doomed.
Whereas Collateral was character-driven — showing the lives of a tightly defined group of characters upended by a deadly shooting — Roadkill seems at first plot-driven. It’s all incident. (There are two car crashes within fifteen minutes of each other.) But that’s deliberate. The characters — not just by Hare’s design, but by the choices they’ve made — have left themselves very much at the mercy of events beyond their control. People who see fit to live in the limelight, who act on the fringes of political and personal morality, have — in fact — made themselves the victims of their own behavior. They have little control over their destinies. And because of that, Hare can indulge in scene after scene of shocking reveals and reversals that never once feel forced. Through the course of Roadkill’s four episodes, there isn’t one line that seems out of place; not one character who doesn’t make an impression. Everyone has a role to play, because everyone has an axe to grind or a reputation to resuscitate, a life plan to further or family ties worth pursuing or salvaging. Hare may have written the first character-based drama that masquerades as a plot-driven one. Fifty years into his professional career, he’s still upending convention and defying expectations.
I’ll freely confess that, if Roadkill hadn’t appeared in the final months of 2020, Mike Bartlett’s Life would have topped my “year’s best” list. If Roadkill managed to disguise a character-driven drama as a writer-driven one, Life reminded us that expertly drawn characters can get us past the hoariest of plot contrivances. And that sometimes those very contrivances can prove useful for defining and deepening characters. On the surface, there isn’t anything in Life we haven’t seen in dozens of dramas: the long-suffering wife growing to regret the sacrifices she’s made; the young bride-to-be torn between two admirers; the professional screwup (with the alcohol addiction) suddenly burdened with the upbringing of a teenage daughter; the recent widower discovering his late wife wasn’t all that she seemed.
And in fact, if you read only a plot synopsis of Life, you might think it all hoary plot devices. One character tries to commit suicide shortly before the series starts, upending the status quo; moments into episode 1, another character almost runs over a former schoolmate she hasn’t seen in decades, resetting the narrative. There’s a doozy of a trick played on the viewer thirty minutes in, which negates everything we've come to believe, and another shocker at the end of the first hour, which alters the series' trajectory. And at the episode 4, just as a couple seems to be reaching a reconciliation, one of them witnesses a chance encounter that he misinterprets, and it derails their reunion. There’s an awful lot of that sort of gimmickry in Life, and I should be appalled, because it’s the kind of plot-driven writing that annoys me no end. And yet I sat there amused and fascinated and contented, paying no heed to storytelling devices that typically distress me.
Because at the end of the day, Life — on the screen as in the real world — is all about character, and here, Bartlett delivers. As a matter of record, prior to Life, my knowledge of Bartlett was limited to the Doctor Who episode “Knock Knock,“ one of the worst stories the new series churned out in its first ten seasons. Motivations were sketchy, and the denouement unaffecting. Why Bartlett was unable to draft well-drawn characters on Doctor Who but manages it so magnificently here is a mystery, although a friend and I have observed that good writers are forever dumbing down their work when they’re hired on Doctor Who.
The characters in Life seem startling and complex. The outlines are familiar, but the details feel fresh — and the actors themselves seem mindful and joyful of the fact that they’re transcending type. And with characters so rich, you have no idea where Bartlett will take them — that alone makes Life captivating. I see so many dramas these days where I can predict every twist, and a lot of viewers seem to lap it up, because they think a good reason to like a show is that events happen as they expect them to. In the old days, it was understood that the writer’s job was to take you where you needed to go, not necessarily where you wanted to go; nowadays, social media permits such a false sense of “camaraderie” with the writers that if viewers don’t get their way, they feel betrayed. I’m old-fashioned: I still want the writer to surprise me. Not by people behaving out of character, but by characterizations so deep that you can’t easily anticipate anyone’s next move. Watching Life, I had no idea what was going to happen next, although I knew exactly what I wanted to see happen. And sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t — but I never once questioned Bartlett’s design.
Every story-line is compelling, but I want to focus briefly on the oldest couple, played (beautifully) by Alison Steadman and Peter Davison, in great part because — as both of them admitted in interviews — strong roles aren’t written much anymore for actors their age. Part of the brilliance of Bartlett’s script lies in how he keeps our allegiances shifting; there seem to be two ways of viewing each relationship — and my husband and I, as we were watching, frequently found ourselves on opposing sides. And never more than in the series’ depiction of Gail and Henry Reynolds. At the start, Steadman enjoys the sympathetic role, as she comes to recognize how much of herself she’s lost through the course of her marriage, and starts to chart a new course. And demands, quite reasonably, that her husband change: that he abandon the verbal putdowns that he’s — wittingly or not — heaped on her for decades. But by episode 4, Bartlett flips the script: pulling Gail briefly out of the picture and permitting us a better understanding of Henry. And that transforms the story-line.
Because in truth, although a wife recognizing that she’s sacrificed her sense of self to please her husband is — sadly — still relevant, it’s been done an awful lot. But examining it from the husband’s perspective, especially (spoiler!!) on the heels of a devastating medical diagnosis: that felt novel and substantial. When I was in my teens, my mother, then in her 40s, would counter any complaint I had with her with the cop-out “I’m too old to change.“ But when you’re nearing 70 and have limited time left, then are you too old? Is it, in fact, too late? How much can you afford to change — or do you need to cling to the familiar to properly navigate your final few months? And how much do you have a right to expect from the woman who vowed to stand by you in sickness and in health — a woman whom, terrifyingly, you no longer recognize? Davison doesn’t underplay the despicable aspects of Henry’s personality — he's quite willing to be loathed — but he makes us deeply attuned to Henry's distress, and to the professional failings that have left him scarred. And as a result, when Gail and Henry battle it out, our loyalties — as in so many of the story-lines — are torn.
Life takes place in four flats in a converted Victorian home, and showcases the four families living there, the eldest being the owners, the Reynolds. One of the flats belongs to Belle Stone (Victoria Hamilton), spun off from Bartlett’s Doctor Foster. I’m never seen an episode of Doctor Foster, but I’m reasonably certain my viewing pleasure was in no way impaired. Most of the storylines go their separate ways, as befitting people leading private lives that only occasionally intersect. But perhaps it’s those moments where their lives do intersect that are the most moving. Sometimes their emotions grow so uncontainable that they spill out of their apartments and into the hallways (sometimes down the front steps and into the driveway). There was nothing I saw this year as raw and powerful as a set piece midway through the series, when Belle comes home drunk from a failed job interview and has a meltdown just outside her door. Little by little, her neighbors start to gather, each eying her differently, based on what they know of her and what she knows about them. And as she writhes in emotional pain, her neighbors prove unable to assist her: their responses too muddied by their preoccupations with their own lives and, as a result, their limited capacities for empathy.
Through the course of the series’ six episodes, the building itself takes on a real presence, and the residents’ sense of community becomes increasingly palpable. And not, mind you, a warm sense of community — but an honest one, complete with long-standing grudges, mistaken motives, outbursts of embarrassment and shared despair. And when, at the end of the penultimate hour, the oldest resident and one of the youngest, who’ve barely uttered a word to each other through the course of the series, stand on the front stoop, dragging on a joint and bonding over a mutual feeling of helplessness (“You ever want to just scream?") — without revealing any details of the traumas they’ve been enduring — well, you might just shed a tear in commiseration.
Near the end of Life, when one of the characters has gotten herself into an unwise, very public commitment that she can't get out of, it’s her neighbors who help extricate her. Not her friends, but her neighbors. And that feels wonderfully, mysteriously right — not just because it’s a validation of the premise, but because of the times we live in. Life was an apt story for 2020, a year in which we were separated from our friends, and suddenly very aware of our neighbors. Neighbors that, perhaps, we didn’t know all that well, whom perhaps we still don’t know all that well — except they’re all we see as we stare out from our self-imposed isolations and government-mandated lockdowns. And perhaps we wonder: who are these people, and can I trust them, and would they be there for me? And Life ultimately gave us a gloriously affirming answer. Even the way it wrapped up — not with a series of happy endings, but with a sense of optimism all around — felt so very right. We need that sense of optimism right now, and Bartlett knew it.
If Roadkill was the perfect series to explain 2020, Life was the perfect series to get us through it. David Hare, as noted, is well into his 70s; Mike Bartlett is barely 40. Given the production shutdowns mandated by the pandemic this past year, with few indicators as to how or even if the industry will fully recover, TV in 2020 has too often seemed like the proverbial “vast wasteland.” But these two gentlemen give me hope.
Want more? Check out an essay called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. And if you like in-depth looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries. And if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes and 10 Best Designing Women Episodes; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.