If only our election seasons were as brisk as the first part of The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, the latest Masterpiece Theater import from Britain airing Sundays through Nov. 18. At the top of the hour, we’re introduced to cheery supermarket manager Ros Pritchard (Jane Horrocks, still best known here as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous). She’s an aisle-patrolling, vigilant-but-supportive dynamo — a “Tuck that shirt in” here, a “How’s your mum’s feet?” there — who breaks apart a physical scrape between local Tory- and Labor-party candidates outside her store’s front doors with a crowd-pleasing “I could do better than you lot!”
At the end of the hour — and only a few months or so in the series’ time frame — she’s the spearhead of a powerful new political movement, loved by a majority of the country, and .?.?. drum roll, please .?.?. the new prime minister!
Designed to capitalize on the U.K.’s soul searching as Tony Blair brought his controversial Labor reign to an end, creator/writer Sally Wainwright imagines what would happen if voters, instead of holding their noses and choosing the lesser of two evils, turned a straight-talking wife/mom/supermarket boss into the savior of modern politics. It’s the kind of perky fable of zero-to-60 electoral success that could send any of our own 24/7 presidential aspirants — who will have devoted years of their lives to campaigning by the time next November rolls around — into a cascade of cathartic laughter. (Hillary might want to keep the first installment around as a sci-fi mood lightener on especially trying trail days.)
But the fantasy is also maddening. We watch Ros become P.M. without hearing her make any policy promises beyond the usual need for a change. And when the snowball first starts to roll, she admits she’d never been interested in politics before and doesn’t know anything about it.
“I’m not what you think I am,” she tells Kitty Porter (Frances Tomelty), the wealthy owner of the supermarket, who instantly offers to bankroll Ros to the tune of 10 million pounds.
“I don’t think you know what you are yet,” Porter responds.
That may make for handy dramatic contrivance — find yourself by leading a nation! — but it relies on the dream that we’re all supposedly hankering for government to be reinvigorated by a know-nothing who’s disarmingly chummy and has a gift for camera-ready public outrage. Sorry, but Americans have been suffering the effects of that bill of goods for seven years now. Ros isn’t presented as Bush — she despises the Iraq war — but I do wish the populist angle of the mostly entertaining The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard didn’t have to start from the tired notion that the only good politician is an outsider brought up to speed. At least American television’s most recent attempts at idealistic political theater — The West Wing and Commander-in-Chief — stemmed from the notion that their do-gooders in power were inherently political animals as well as knowledgeable, thoughtful agents of positive change.
Ros means well, of course, with her “Politics isn’t rocket science” slogan and her newly formed Purple Alliance (even if it does sound like Prince’s backup band), which calls for everyday women from across England to get involved and challenge establishment candidates for M.P. seats. But after the suspension-of-disbelief ascent of the first episode, the remaining installments do plenty to show how easily the self-satisfied smile gets wiped off her mother-knows-best face as the full weight of the gig — imperiled soldiers in far-off lands, policy minutiae, meetings, threats to citizens, casual disloyalty from within, an education in head-of-state protocol and, of course, no time for hubby Ian (Steven Mackintosh) or their two daughters — becomes clear. Some of the most satisfying elements, in fact, are how Ros and her cabinet work out the hornet’s nest of getting through some radical initiatives: diluting the power of the unelected House of Lords, physically relocating Parliament to the middle of the country (better to be near the people!) and forcing Britons to not drive their cars every Wednesday in an effort to inspire other countries to take environmental action.
Ultimately, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard plays like the optimistic end of a British political-drama spectrum that includes, on the super-cynical side, the 2005 satire The Thick of It — about a disaster-prone M.P. trying to save his skin at every turn — and is occupied in the middle by the brilliant ’80s Britcom Yes, Minister, which hilariously detailed the backroom battles between a civil-service lifer and a publicity-hound politician to make governmental non-action look like progress.
But if you’re going to sell a Mrs.-Smith-Goes-to-Downing-Street saga to a jaded public, you could certainly do a lot worse than cast the estimable and appealing Jane Horrocks as your rural revolutionary. Her accent alone, a broad Northern England squawk that can sound childlike or fearsome with the smallest shifts in register, is a powerful dramatic tool, as fans of her turns in Absolutely Fabulous and Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet can attest to. Plus, there’s a take-me-seriously stature to her birdlike frame that never feels diminished even next to the fantastic, Amazonian Janet McTeer as Catherine Walker, a key Conservative party figure who scandalously defects to the Purple Alliance to become deputy prime minister — and usually the aggrieved voice of slow-change political reality — in Ros’ government. Also rounding out the inner circle is a fine performance from Jodhi May as an early Ros champion who becomes a fierce adviser and crisis averter.
Eventually the show settles into a steamroller-in-fifth-gear pace that’s one part Madame Cinderella story as Ros blurts out her ideas in public, then scrambles to make them real — with probably a few too many times when people remind a beleaguered Ros to stick to her guns, because “that’s why people voted for you” — and one part corridors-of-power soap opera. Regarding the latter, a subplot involving a skeleton in Ian’s closet that Ros doesn’t know about — and its effect when emotionally jumbled teenage daughter Emily (Carey Mulligan) finds out — brings some effective shadings to the question of how much integrity we should expect from even our most-beloved leaders. But don’t expect the most satisfying of resolutions for this storyline, or a few others, because The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, presented here in the U.S. as a stand-alone miniseries, ends in a manner that hints at further episodes, even though there’s been no news of a recommission by the BBC. So as far as we know, the grocer from Eatanswill may be only a one-term wonder.?
THE AMAZING MRS. PRITCHARD | KCET | Sundays, 9 p.m. | Through Nov. 18. | Also available on DVD beginning Oct. 30 (Acorn Media Publishing, $39.99).