With the generally unstable nature of the world now, why shouldn’t it be a fertile time for the makers of paranoid thrillers? Of course, here in America, we create a terrorism pulse-quickener like 24 and queasily discover that its torture-never-fails hero has become an actual source of inspiration for detainee interrogations at Guantanamo. (Maybe the Bush administration watches Pushing Daisies, too, and is deep into R&D on how we can touch dead people and have them spring awake.)
With the five-hour British thriller The Last Enemy, however, which kicks off the first season of the new PBS showcase Masterpiece Contemporary, writer Peter Berry has a more responsibly reactive what-if response to his country’s growing surveillance society — where there’s one closed-circuit-television camera for every 12 people and national identity cards are closer than ever to reality — in the hopes of scaring everyone into an open dialogue about the reach of the state, even in a frighteningly violent, protection-mad age. The Last Enemy is a nerve-racking puzzle piece, the kind of politically aware, multistrand skullduggery the Brits enjoy confounding us with every so often — like Traffik, To Play the King and State of Play, to name a few of the best — but this time with a high-tech/biometric angle that edges the story a little closer to speculative fiction.
Things begin on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (hasn’t the 21st century, ultimately?), where a charismatic aid worker’s vehicle is obliterated in a land-mine explosion. When Michael Ezard’s math-whiz brother Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch) flies into London for Michael’s funeral — having been reclusively doing research in China for four years — his life suddenly becomes very mysterious and complicated: He discovers a dying female refugee in his apartment who then disappears, his brother’s Bosnian-born physician widow (Anamaria Marinca) initiates an affair with him, and a company wants to hire him to be a spokesperson for a data-centralizing government-surveillance program called Total Information Awareness, or TIA, that’s up for passage in Parliament.
And the stuff going on around Stephen that he doesn’t know about yet? People being followed, nervous government figures in cover-up mode, a shadowy, snarling agent (Robert Carlyle) searching trashed apartments before retreating to his electric-fence-protected, Harry Caul–like base of operations in an abandoned warehouse. Then the kidnappings, chases, murders, attempted murders, deceptions, stealth infiltrations, confrontations, explosions and twists start piling up, to the point where — despite the movie’s politics — you might wish you had your own Total Information Awareness computer program to keep track of every plot thread.
But getting lost is usually part of the journey with these intricate British thrillers, and in a story that often requires its web-piecing protagonists to create false fronts or go off the grid so they can investigate without being tracked, the occasional narrative fog carries an emotional authenticity. (The central love triangle’s relevancy wanes, however, as the life-and-death perils reach their fifth-hour peak.) Despite a few flagging stretches, The Last Enemy — directed by Iain B. MacDonald to be this year’s British television model of Hitchcockian suspense craft and LeCarre-style cautionary intrigue — is swiftly diverting as it tries to prod us into fearing the future. But what’s most unsettling about The Last Enemy doesn’t involve evading an assassin or exposing the conspiracy; it’s the Orwellian touches, such as when Stephen is stripped of his identity and Berry dramatizes how easy it would be to shut down a human being’s life if his every engagement with the world — a random street interaction with a cop, entering a building, getting cash, conducting a simple transaction — involved a valid but easily corruptible and manipulated piece of plastic producing a perky bleep when swiped.
Then there’s the writerly swipe Berry takes at technology. Explaining to an awestruck Stephen why he’s still able to access all license-plate numbers that appeared in a specific camera’s range during a set time period a year earlier, Carlyle’s character says, “If you can store a billion numbers on a pinhead, why throw it away?” To which Stephen cracks, “I used to live in a world in which man argued how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Now it’s car numbers.”
The British comedians who make up the sketch series Little Britain — Matt Lucas and David Walliams — are gifted caricaturists whose distinct physicalities almost demanded they team up. Lucas is gay, Weeble-sized, open-faced and short, with a fluidly nasal command of a wide range of accents, and a chameleon-like ability to play realistic-looking men, women and even children of all types (as long as they’re, well, fat). Walliams, meanwhile, is straight, tall, with the outsized head, devilish features and snide baritone of a ’30s-era British villain, which of course makes his drag characters more inherently silly than believable. At their best together onscreen, they’re like a perverse yet sweet omnisexual pairing playing out their dress-up fantasies for the world, and characters like Lucas’ motor-mouthed delinquent Vicky Pollard, his “only gay in the village” Daffyd, and Walliams’ terribly obvious transvestite Emily Howard have become legitimately iconic bastions of old-school broad English humor. But over three seasons of Little Britain, their comedy has also devolved from a love of eccentrics oblivious to their loopiness to a display of repellent wack jobs. The characters weren’t characters anymore, they were excuses to projectile-vomit, projectile-pee, wear house-sized naked fat suits or treat the mere utterance of crude sexual euphemisms as inherent punch lines.
Perhaps aware of a need to recharge the batteries (despite being the biggest comedy stars in the U.K.), Lucas and Walliams shot their latest installments in America for HBO and called it Little Britain USA. They’ve imported some characters, including queeny Prime Minister Sebastian Love, now sexually harassing the president (Harry Lennix); Vicky Pollard, now in a juvenile boot camp; and cruel-to-be-unkind weight-loss-group leader Marjorie Dawes, who asks guest star (and good sport) Rosie O’Donnell, “Are you fat because you’re a lesbian, or are you a lesbian because you’re fat?”
The oldies amount to a reset button in case you’ve never seen the show before, but it’s a toss-up if the umpteenth appearance of these loonies will make die-hards keep laughing. The new gallery of U.S.-born weirdos is slightly unremarkable — save for the always incredible costume/makeup/wig jobs — but has some bright spots, mostly coming from Walliams, playing a petulant old astronaut who feels insufficiently recognized for being the eighth man to walk on the moon, and a spinsterish woman named Phyllis with a disturbingly suggestive dog (whom Phyllis voices, of course). But even this latter character needlessly agonized me as I laughed. When Phyllis-as-Mr.-Doggy commands herself to poop in public, I was genuinely worried that some Pink Flamingos—level verisimilitude was mere seconds away. There wasn’t, and the bit was saved, but still, watching comedy shouldn’t also invoke a paralyzing fear of being disgusted.
Or should it?
THE LAST ENEMY | PBS | Sundays, 9 p.m., beginning Oct. 5
LITTLE BRITAIN USA | HBO | Sundays, 10:30 p.m., beginning Sept. 28