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`State Within': It's fun (if you can follow)

It may be confusing, even preposterous. But the BBC America political thriller is entertaining, enjoyable.

February 17, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"The State Within," a new, imported political whodunit on BBC America, is something less than perfect, but if you have a taste for high-level skulduggery and do not mind being totally confused much of the time, it's an enjoyable enough ride -- fun, sometimes exciting, basically intelligent, occasionally preposterous.

Co-written and co-directed by Daniel Percival (with Lizzie Mickery and Michael Offer, respectively) whose previous credits include TV movies on nuclear and biological terrorism, it reflects the current world mess without replicating it and avoids the usual "death to the West" cliches by focusing on Anglo American relations instead. (It substitutes less usual cliches.) It's only a fourth as long as a season of "24" and far more reasonable -- its hero is a diplomat, not a superpatriotic torture-enduring / inflicting fighting machine.

When a London-bound airliner blows up while taking off from Dulles International, the world's sexiest British ambassador to the U.S. (Jason Isaacs, "Brotherhood") finds himself catapulted into a drama involving the Department of Defense, a giant American corporation that is supposed to remind you of Halliburton, British mercenaries, a prisoner on Florida's death row (Lennie James, "Jericho") and the sexy human rights lawyer (Eva Birthistle) who is trying to free him, and a fictional Near East republic ruled by a somewhat comically imagined dictator whom the West has regarded both as an asset and as a pain in the asset (Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf may pop to mind).

For added color, there is a flirtatious wiseacre American reporter (Aaron Abrams, also featured in this year's "Slings & Arrows"), a no-nonsense FBI agent (Marnie McPhail), an opposition leader, a sympathetic prison guard, an alcoholic wild card, a child in danger, a corruptible governor, a corporate bigwig and sundry other players too numerous to mention or remember. Somehow they all tie together.

It helps that the six parts in which the series was originally shown have been joined into three for domestic consumption, the first two tonight and Sunday night, the third next Saturday. I can't imagine keeping this straight week to week. "The State Within" is perhaps best watched with someone you can ask, "Now, who is that again?" The best tack is just to let the action flow over you, trusting that some character will explain it eventually. At the same time, the confusion intensifies the atmosphere of menace -- confusion is a kind of suspense, after all. It's harder to notice plot holes when you can't tell what's going on.

"A British thriller American-style," one reviewer called the series when it aired in Britain last year, meaning it as a good thing, but that describes most British thrillers nowadays. (Some of us longingly recall the measured steps of "Smiley's People.") The camera misbehaves constantly, and there are lots of long-lens shots for that spied-upon look. There have been busy fingers in the digital post-production paint box as well; Florida is rendered as entirely orange (they have oranges there, but the color stays on the fruit). In spite of the whirling visuals, the mostly understated performances keep things battened down. Isaacs and Ben Daniels, who plays the ambassador's suspiciously busy right-hand man, are good at creating Bondean intrigue while seeming to live in the real world.

The American characters have it less easy, as their dialogue tends to sound filtered through a foreign ear, a language learned from imported comic books and old movies. Sharon Gless ("Cagney & Lacey") as a tough-as-nails secretary of Defense gets the worst of this, though she seems happy to snack on the scenery provided. There are times when the film seems to be constructed as a kind of perverse travelogue of American mores, including the quaint old custom of capital punishment, which is presented at length and in detail.

It takes Isaacs' ambassador almost until hour six to go on the offensive and for "The State Within" to become the Hitchcock film it's desperate to become. There is chasing, running and even fisticuffs. The payoff -- the solution to the mystery -- is an anticlimax, and not quite believable. The end cheats a little, but as a compromise between being honest about how things really are and not completely depressing you. I considered that a favor.


`The State Within'

Where: BBC America

When: 9 tonight, Sunday and Feb. 24

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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