Author J.K. Rowling's rags-to-riches biography is arguably better known than her most famous creation, Harry Potter. As the oft-repeated origin story goes, Rowling was a single mother making ends meet, aided by government assistance, while she was scribbling the first installment of her phenomenally successful fantasy series in a café — which was heated, unlike her apartment. In five years, she went from being as poor “as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless” to becoming a multimillionaire, eventually surpassing the queen of England in wealth.
Rowling's story speaks to the triumph of talent and persistence. Yet she would be the first to decry the ideology of pulling oneself up solely by one's own bootstraps — a metaphor that originated in the 19th century to denote an impossible or nonsensical feat. In The Casual Vacancy, her first post-Hogwarts work and her first novel for adults, she posits that the biggest threat to social cohesion is class difference, and takes aim at “that pleasurable rush that comes from condemning” the socially disadvantaged. While the new BBC/HBO miniseries adaptation introduces plenty of departures from Rowling's book, the author's parable of how the rich carelessly screw over the poor — then scorn them for their vulnerability — is successfully translated to the small screen.
The sudden death of local do-gooder Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) leaves the idyllic town of Pagford at a crossroads: If the well-heeled Mollisons (Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) get their way, the methadone clinic will be relocated and a luxury spa built in its stead. Fairbrother had led the campaign against the Mollisons, who, in their geriatric years, are still grasping for power in the divided town council. A local election to fill Fairbrother's seat — the casual vacancy of the title — will decide the fate of the recovering addicts who depend on the clinic. By the end of the miniseries (which will air in three parts over two nights, April 29–30), Pagford will suffer another fatality.
HBO is billing The Casual Vacancy as a peek into the rotting underbelly of a postcard-perfect village, deploying the tagline No town is ever what it seems. Secrets come pouring out through the town's online forum, where a user who identifies him-/herself as “the ghost of Barry Fairbrother” begins posting less-than-savory details about each of the candidates: the Mollisons' middle-aged pushover of a son, Miles (Rufus Jones); neurotic school administrator Colin (Simon McBurney); and Barry's criminal half-brother, Simon (Richard Glover), whose resentment at “Saint Bloody Barry” is matched only by the dead man's long-suffering wife (Emily Bevan).
Though he was otherwise beloved by the town he served, Barry is mourned most by Krystal Weedon (newcomer and scene-stealer Abigail Lawrie), a teenage girl who's taken over parenting duties for her little brother because her heroin-addicted mother can't even get it together on the days when the social worker (Michele Austin) is scheduled to inspect the house.
But the miniseries is actually least interesting as a voyeuristic stare at Pagford's warts. No place is without its victims and failures, after all; even Mayberry had a town drunk. The Casual Vacancy occasionally feels like one long dinner-party scene — that tired setup where a stressor or a bottle of wine opens the floodgates to a deluge of performative dysfunction. There is, in fact, a disastrous dinner party in which spouses squabble publicly, livelihoods are threatened and tempers are not so much lost as summarily flung out the window. So these people are imperfect and unhappy, but so what? Their problems aren't even that bad — writer Sarah Phelps and director Jonny Campbell have pruned the book's grittier details of rape, pedophilia, overdose and self-mutilation.
What's worse is that, with very few exceptions, none of the characters feels true to life. Like the rash under Colin's toupee, it's all a little too obvious. Perhaps it's because the relatively brief running time of three hours doesn't allow us to get to know the two dozen notable characters, but Pagford doesn't feel like a town populated by people, just a crude illustration of a social ladder. Phelps does a capable job of condensing Rowling's expansive, Dickensian novel, but the characters' flatness frequently makes the setting feel artificial and its jokes fall flat.
Nor does the election for Barry's seat contribute much excitement to the sluggishly paced proceedings. Pagford is certainly no Pawnee-Across-the-Pond; the stakes for the town council race occasionally get lost amid the many story lines, and there's little difference between the two frontrunners, Miles and Colin, who are both emasculated by their wives and by the dead man who tells too many tales. The electoral cyber-bullying is the miniseries' freshest narrative element — and enjoys a fascinating basis in reality, too — but that plot disappointingly just tapers off.
It's also frustrating that, despite The Casual Vacancy's obvious sympathies for the disadvantaged, there's a greater focus in exposing “bourgeois mendacity,” as Colin's insufferably Nietzschean stepson Stuart (Brian Vernel) puts it, than in creating believable characters who happen to be poor — the result of which is to crowd the story with lots of middle-class characters while denying psychological depth to the less fortunate. Thus, with the important exception of Krystal, the narrative ends up marginalizing the very people it purports to champion.
Yet under its relatively placid surface, a compelling rage runs deep in Pagford, and the story sharply observes the myriad ways the haves subtly but untiringly dehumanize the have-nots. Malice is expected from the Mollisons, who unashamedly crow about economically “raising the drawbridge” after they've crossed it — what now passes for a thrill in their bedroom. But even more insidious, Stuart fetishizes Krystal's destitution by deeming it “authentic.” For example, he uses her not only for sex but also to piss off his parents through his affiliation with an unruly girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
In the end, the fortunes of impoverished Pagfordians hinge on the results of fewer than 500 votes. But neither democracy nor dignity stands a chance against the tyranny of economic inequality.
The Casual Vacancy
Executive produced by Paul Trijbits, Rick Senat, Neil Blair and J.K. Rowling
Produced by Ruth Kenley-Letts
Directed by Jonny Campbell
Script by Sarah Phelps
Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
The Casual Vacancy on HBO
Parts 1 and 2 air on April 29
Part 3 airs on April 30
Inkoo Kang is the TV Critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.