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Overstuffed drama causes a `State' of viewer indigestion

February 23, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Dear BBC America:

As a pointy-headed liberal in good standing, when I read the advance press about the "miniseries" "The State Within," I was thrilled. Put Jason Isaacs in something, I'll watch it; put Sharon Gless in the same something, I'll watch it twice. Cast aspersions on the motives and actions of even a fictionalized American presidential administration post-9/11 and my husband will be right there with me. (But why is it women can recite Isaacs' entire filmography and men don't ever remember who he is?)

Yet strangely, you have made it almost impossible for us to watch this show. A 2 1/2 -hour debut last Saturday followed by a 2 1/2 -hour "second episode" on Sunday? If I had that kind of time on a weekend, I would certainly devote it to something more valuable than watching a television show -- I would learn Italian, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or at the very least wash the dog. In fact, if I'm watching any film on TV that passes the two-hour mark, I better see Vivien Leigh, the ghost of Hamlet's father or a company of Orcs. (Although "State's" nefarious gay couple come as close as you can to Orc-hood and still have really terrific hair.)

Of course, you are hoping to get people all caught up this Saturday, when you air the final episode, prefaced by the previous two. That's 7 1/2 hours of television -- and, as I understand it, a president will not be elected at the end of it.

BBC, BBC, what were you thinking? You seem to be suffering from the same problem plaguing Isaacs' overworked British ambassador: The people you trust are lying to you.

It's fine if you want to raise to near sainthood members of a government that at one time or another has oppressed pretty much everyone. "The Girl in the Cafe" did the same thing, and I thought that movie should have won an Oscar, even if it was on television. And I realize you are taking the, um, bold step of fingering American xenophobia and warmongering, but do you really need to insult the intelligence of your fans?

Conventional wisdom may have it that Americans are plasma-screen addicts who think nothing of watching whatever comes after "American Idol" simply because they are too lazy to hit the power button on the remote. But even if these people exist, they are not about to watch "The State Within," with its convoluted plot lines (hint: when you have to identify your leads with little subtitles in the second episode, you may have too many leads) and military-industrial-complex overtones.

The people who are going to watch your show are my husband and me and all our British-TV-loving friends. The same people who knew Helen Mirren from "Prime Suspect" long before she cornered the Elizabethan awards market. Me, I saw my first frontal TV nudity at age 8 while watching "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." But with three children, two jobs and an actual life, we had a hard time getting through "State's" first two segments (I refuse to call a 2 1/2 -hour television narrative "an episode"). Even with TiVo. To watch, I either have to skip a day at work, stay up until well past midnight or hire a baby-sitter.

When it aired in Britain, "The State Within" ran in reasonable hourlong episodes, though I understand there was a big drop-off in ratings as it went on, probably because viewers found it impossible to hold all the various story lines in their heads for an entire week without the benefit of color-coded index cards. So I say yes to the index cards -- mail 'em out to the "Masterpiece Theatre" demographic. Take out an ad with a chart and a timeline in People and Harper's. Or do what "Lost" does -- send everyone to an explanatory website. Just give us something we recognize as a TV program.

Not that this solves all your problems, including the fact that there is such a welter of evildoers that it is hard to imagine a way in which they will all get the appropriate comeuppance. The noble leads are also a bit dense -- what diplomat in his right mind would hand over his cellphone, with all those received calls and pre-programmed numbers, to even a trusted second-in-command?

Of course, the ambassador may have had second thoughts, retrieved his cellphone and realized that his second-in-command seemed to be out of the office way too much for an honest government employee.

But I wouldn't know because I haven't been able to find the time to watch the rest.

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