Sex and Gambling on the Polite Screen | TV | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Sex and Gambling on the Polite Screen 

BBC America and Lifetime get ambitious and tackle sin

Thursday, Oct 20 2005
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Watching the six-part miniseries Viva Blackpool on BBC America, I couldn’t help but look at this genre bender — about an ambitious, overconfident smalltime arcade owner with visions of casino-hotel riches — and think of the cable channel’s own wish to transform from boutique house to the big leagues of drama/comedy programming. The mix BBC America currently offers is substantial, too, from the disturbing hospital series Bodies to the dysfunctional clan comedy The Robinsons to the delicious melodrama Footballers’ Wives. And at first glance, Viva Blackpool — originally called Blackpool, now with an Elvis-ified “Viva” so we Yanks will recognize that the titular seaside English town is the U.K. version of Las Vegas — carries something for everybody: witty dialogue, a whodunit crime, illicit love, a conflict-ridden family, even musical numbers. But if writer Peter Bowker was hoping to reflect the anything-goes milieu of a fortune-and-folly dreamland with his mélange of styles, he overdid it. Viva Blackpool is simultaneously too much and too little, its neon dazzle flickering instead of reaching a consistently burning intensity. The first pull of the lever, however — Episode 1, that is — is a jackpot, introducing with toe-tapping spunk the sideburn-sporting entrepreneur Ripley Holden (David Morrissey), who confidently announces at the opening of his latest game palace, the Yankee Dollar, “It’s gold-rush time in Blackpool, and guess who’s shitting gold nuggets?” Ripley has tax problems, a wicked tongue, temper issues, a dissatisfied wife named Natalie (Sarah Parish), a wayward son (Thomas Morrison), and a teenage daughter (Georgia Taylor) in love with a much older man, yet he’s convinced he’ll be at the forefront of Blackpool’s metamorphosis from moldy pensioner’s resort to sparkling leisure mecca. Then a dead hooligan’s body pops up in Ripley’s establishment, followed quickly by a Javert-like investigator named Carlisle (David Tennant) intent on bringing Ripley down, and suddenly begins a mogul wannabe’s bad-luck streak.It all sounds juicy, but, unfortunately, bad luck isn’t the same as painstakingly threaded tragedy, so instead of Ripley’s misfortunes seeming like Sopranos-style cosmic payback for a life of dirty deeds — his past, we later find out, is one to pity rather than one to fear — they just seem like pesky, stop-and-start stalling tactics to justify a six-installment run. The murder story loses steam quickly, as does the affair that develops between Carlisle and Natalie, although it’s given a measure of poignancy by Parish’s erotically melancholic turn as a brute’s forgotten spouse seeking her own pleasure center. It’s a series of roulette spins rather than an intertwined round of poker.Perhaps the best example of the series’ jumbled aims is the song and dance, with characters occasionally expressing themselves through pop tunes both classic (Smokey’s “I Second That Emotion,” Diana’s “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”) and cheesy (Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Slade’s “Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me”). But unlike the way legendary British writer Dennis Potter, in such groundbreaking teleplays as Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, used our collective memory bank of musical nostalgia to address our complex relationship to pop culture’s catalog of fantasies and dreams, Viva Blackpool plays like a restaurant jukebox, squirting out lively but fluffy musical excursions as if they were energy boosts rather than an aesthetic necessity. You’ll smile, but then start thinking about the missed opportunities. The actors sing along with the tracks, too, which is supposed to stress the characters’ emotional connections, but mostly sounds like an audio screwup.Standing out in this hodgepodge, though, is David Morrissey, a tall, strong actor with a brawler’s physique and a sonorous baritone who instinctively understands drama, who works the contradictions in Ripley at every chance. When he’s threatening someone, he can’t hide the neurotic glimmer in his eyes, and when he’s enthusiastically chummy, he’s as terrifying as an uncaged panther. Morrissey’s take-no-prisoners performance is the soul of Viva Blackpool when everything occasionally does come together: the dark heart beating behind shiny dreams, and how the impulses that make us winners can also make us losers. BBC America watchers will remember him from his brilliant turn as the politician caught in a murderous scandal in last year’s heart-pounding miniseries State of Play, which is being rebroadcast on the channel starting October 30. I envy anyone who hasn’t seen this superb conspiracy thriller yet — please don’t wait for the movie version currently being developed — because the storytelling rush it provides over a half-dozen twisting, turning episodes is practically chemical in its power. And Morrissey doesn’t have to prop that one up himself, because everything — the writing, the directing and the other actors — is topnotch. It’s apparent from State of Play and even a colorful misfire like Viva Blackpool that he’s an irresistible performer, a master of the soulful, the angry, the cornered. “I want to nail the pig who did this”: Is Mira Sorvino talking to TV boss Donald Sutherland or annoying director-cinematographer Christian Duguay? For its new four-hour miniseries Human Trafficking, Lifetime has, according to its press release, spurred a major outreach-and-advocacy program to spread the word about the global reach of sexual slavery in conjunction with the film’s premiere Monday night. If only the network had worked as hard on the movie itself, which rarely rises above the level of cut-and-dried cops-and-bad-guys tale. Writers Carol Doyle and Agatha Dominik clearly want to do for international sex rings what the various incarnations of Traffic did for drugs: weave a web of far-flung stories so that a distressing issue is seen in both its global ramifications and its most intensely personal ones. But despite a vivid portrait from Isabelle Blais of a kidnapped Eastern European single mother separated from her daughter, what it still comes down to here is Mira Sorvino’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement official responding to a prostitute’s suicide by declaring, “I want to nail the pig who did this,” and Robert Carlyle — as a wealthy businessman whose sex-slave reach goes from the Ukraine to the Philippines — handing in unhinged kingpin variation No. 38. Then there’s the substory of Sorvino’s character worrying about not pleasing her daddylike boss (Donald Sutherland), a weirdly incongruous embedded message to send in a story of the criminal enslavement of women. Compounding things is director-cinematographer Christian Duguay’s annoyingly active camera style that favors pointlessly swooping outdoor crane shots — as if this will give big-screen pizzazz to a small-screen project — and an inability to sit still when two people in a room are talking. The restlessness could be the filmmaker’s stylistic way of hinting at the need for aggressive action in confronting a worldwide crisis, but it mostly feels like an obsession with speed and vengeance, heroes and villains, over the informative details of human smuggling and the law-enforcement difficulties in fighting it. Admittedly, this kind of topic is not easily dramatized in a culture that is desensitized to nearly everything that ails society. And while no one would expect ad-supported cable television to offer up a story as whirlpool bleak as Swedish director Lukas Moodyson’s harrowing character study Lilya 4-Ever, the least a conscientious network like Lifetime could do is not edit a soul-crippled teenager’s desperate escape attempt from the clutches of her captors to a propulsive dance beat. In moments like that, Human Trafficking ceases to be about the victims in the middle of this grim trade and instead just caters to the thrill of the chase. VIVA BLACKPOOL | BBC America | Premieres Monday, October 24, at 10 p.m.HUMAN TRAFFICKING | Lifetime | Two-night miniseries premieres Monday, October 24, at 9 p.m.

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