Sex and Gambling on the Polite Screen
Watching the six-part miniseries Viva Blackpool on BBC America, I couldnt 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 channels 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, Its gold-rush time in Blackpool, and guess whos 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 hes convinced hell be at the forefront of Blackpools metamorphosis from moldy pensioners resort to sparkling leisure mecca. Then a dead hooligans body pops up in Ripleys establishment, followed quickly by a Javert-like investigator named Carlisle (David Tennant) intent on bringing Ripley down, and suddenly begins a mogul wannabes bad-luck streak.It all sounds juicy, but, unfortunately, bad luck isnt the same as painstakingly threaded tragedy, so instead of Ripleys 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 its given a measure of poignancy by Parishs erotically melancholic turn as a brutes forgotten spouse seeking her own pleasure center. Its 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 (Smokeys I Second That Emotion, Dianas Im Gonna Make You Love Me) and cheesy (Queens Dont Stop Me Now, Slades 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 cultures 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. Youll 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 brawlers physique and a sonorous baritone who instinctively understands drama, who works the contradictions in Ripley at every chance. When hes threatening someone, he cant hide the neurotic glimmer in his eyes, and when hes enthusiastically chummy, hes as terrifying as an uncaged panther. Morrisseys 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 years heart-pounding miniseries State of Play, which is being rebroadcast on the channel starting October 30. I envy anyone who hasnt seen this superb conspiracy thriller yet please dont 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 doesnt have to prop that one up himself, because everything the writing, the directing and the other actors is topnotch. Its apparent from State of Play and even a colorful misfire like Viva Blackpool that hes 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 films 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 Sorvinos Immigration and Customs Enforcement official responding to a prostitutes 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 theres the substory of Sorvinos 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 Duguays 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 filmmakers 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 Moodysons harrowing character study Lilya 4-Ever, the least a conscientious network like Lifetime could do is not edit a soul-crippled teenagers 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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