Photo courtesy BBC Worldwide

With popular distrust of governments running high, State of Play (BBC America, April 18, 9 p.m.) is unusually well-timed. Bristling with spin doctors, cocky journalists and bought politicians, it captures the widespread feeling that much of what we digest as news could just as easily be classified as fiction. Slickly shot, expertly written and acted, and increasingly exciting, this conspiracy thriller presents a real challenge to HBO on Sunday nights — at least for the next six weeks.

The miniseries begins with a drug dealer being shot to death by a professional hit man on a London street. Moments later, elsewhere in London, an underground train shudders to a halt following an announcement that a woman has fallen on the tracks. The woman, Sonia, worked for Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), a rising member of Parliament and chair of the government’s Energy Select Committee. It soon emerges that she was his mistress as well. Did Sonia fall or was she pushed? And why, on the morning of her death, did she receive a phone call from the dealer, who would shortly die himself?

What is unusual about this engrossing drama is that the investigators looking for answers to those questions are not the police (though they are involved as well) but a gang of crusading journalists. Leading the hack pack is Cal McCaffrey, 30-something senior reporter on the Guardian-ish broadsheet, the Herald. A single man with an aging CD collection, he’s played by John Simm, who some of you may remember as the philosopher-murderer Raskolnikov in last year’s BBC adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Though he’s the one doing the interrogating this time, Simm’s pale, slightly otherworldly visage is put to good use. Like Raskolnikov, Cal’s a searcher after truth, even if this time he’s on the right side of the law.

He’s also a good friend of the man he ends up investigating, and therein lies the central tension of the drama. When Stephen first ran for office, Cal was his campaign manager. They’ve drifted apart since then, separated by the increasingly hostile relations between government and media. But faced with a crisis, and with word of his affair with Sonia leaking out, Stephen puts in a call to Cal. He needs a sympathetic ear, and Cal lends it. But once it becomes clear that Sonia’s death was no accident, and that Stephen’s affair with her was a lot more advanced than he initially claimed, friendship takes a back seat as Cal goes after the story. Things become even more complicated when Stephen’s wife, Anne (Polly Walker), leaves him and then starts an affair with Cal. At most papers — in this country, at least — sleeping with the wife of the man you’re investigating would get you fired, but somehow Cal gets away with it.

The conspiracy around which all this relational Sturm und Drang revolves is more shadowy than substantive, but it has to do with an evil oil company (U-Ex Oil), environmental corruption, and the intertwining of government and corporate malfeasance. In a scene intended to showcase his status as a “good” politician, Stephen accuses an American academic giving a talk on behalf of an environmental agency of being a shill for about five different oil companies. “Please don’t make that British mistake of trying to belittle me because I’m outnumbered,” the professor tells Stephen when he interrupts her speech halfway through. “Please don’t do that American thing of thinking that just because we’re 11 hours’ flying time from Texas, we don’t know a 10-dollar hat from a 10-dollar hooker,” he replies. Taking an apparent cue from the film Love Actually, in which the British prime minister publicly rebukes his American counterpart, Stephen is treated to a hearty round of applause.

Another reminder of that film is Bill Nighy, who played the over-the-hill rock star in Love to wonderful comic effect. Here he’s the Herald’s editor in chief, and pulls off the difficult trick of appearing to be utterly on the ball and just slightly out of it at the same time. Every so often he gives a slight jerk to his head like a man suffering a minor acid flashback, though it may just be the red wine he orders up for editorial meetings. [Editor’s note: Red wine at editorial meetings?!] At any rate, you’re never bored when he’s onscreen, which is not quite often enough.

In the end, State of Play boils down to the mano a mano between Stephen and Cal. They make a memorable pair. Stephen, who’s as ruddy and beefy as a rugby player, could throw his much slighter friend across the room, not to mention break his nose. But in this situation, it’s the journalist, not the politician, who holds most of the cards. Because he is Stephen’s friend, and feels guilty about sleeping with his wife, Cal wants desperately to believe Stephen’s version of events, and it’s that emotional knife-edge that gives the series much of its suspense and power.

LA Weekly