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Another village of the damned

June 16, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Showtime's new "Meadowlands" (co-produced with Britain's Channel 4, where it is called "Cape Wrath") features British actors saying the words of British writers for British directors somewhere in Britain. But in the way it drops a load of strange characters into a suburban setting, it's very much on the model of such American cousins as "Weeds" and "Big Love" and especially "The Riches" -- here, as there, a fugitive family takes on new identities -- or, at a slight stretch, "Lost." These seem to me its true forebears, more so than the one British series it readily calls to mind: "The Prisoner," another show in which people who know too much find themselves living in a planned community from which there is no escape.

Rather than coming slowly to realize that all here is not what it seems, it's clear from frame one that something odd is happening, as the Brogans (who once were the Foys) are driven blindfolded to a new home in a high-end but featureless subdivision of the sort currently devouring much of the Western world. The creep factor is kept high throughout, the tone almost always dark and menacing, even when for a moment or two a character appears to be having something near to fun. The puckish humor that has traditionally leavened the British thriller, from Agatha Christie to Alfred Hitchcock to "The Prisoner" itself, has mostly been checked at the door.

"New house, new life, new us," says father Danny (David Morrissey), formerly Eddie. We soon learn that the Brogans/Foys are in a novel sort of witness protection program, centered in its own off-the-radar community, and that they and all their neighbors are there "because they saw something, or told something, maybe did something." Danny/Eddie, for his part, was a nightclub owner who got into some as-yet-unspecified business with bad people and tattled to save his neck and, he likes to think, his family. Now he's going to open Meadowlands' first bar.

One might think that gathering all these people together into one place -- a place where no one is supposed to be able to get in, or want to get out -- would make all the false-identity pretense unnecessary, but apparently not. Also odd is the fact that, despite a really neat-looking, computer-filled command post, hidden in a rundown motel on the edge of town, the keepers -- personified by "handler" Nina Sosanya ("Casanova") -- have almost no idea of what's actually going on in their little prison without walls, and odder still is that they have elected to appoint one unstable head case as town constable (the excellent Ralph Brown, in a set of Victorian muttonchops) and another as its handyman (the very disturbing Tom Hardy).

Like many budget-constrained TV worlds, "Meadowlands" is too sparsely populated by half; the particular do-si-do of a handful of various grotesques, sad cases, spooky overlords and half-heroes is left to stand for the whole. But there's no sense that creators Robert Murphy ("Murder City") and Matthew Arlidge ("Monarch of the Glen") are actually interested in what a community of criminal refugees, and of refugees from criminals, might actually look like. (In fact, something close to this experiment has been tried, and its name is Australia.) If anything, "Meadowlands" just seems a kind of metaphor for itself -- for a TV show, that is, that odd construct in which a clutch of characters are dropped into a small world in which they are forced unnaturally to interact: a prison, a hell.

Whether or not they add up to much, the scenes play well, and there are enough heavy-breathing soap-operatics, random acts of violence and unanswered questions to keep one idly watching. It helps, of course, that the actors are good. Morrissey -- familiar to American viewers from the imports "State of Play" and "Viva Blackpool!," the series CBS is retooling into "Viva Laughlin!" -- is, as usual, a big, impressive presence, though (also as usual) there is something brutal in him that short-circuits sympathy.

More likable and layered is Lucy Cohu as wife Evelyn. Teenage twins Felicity Jones and Harry Treadaway are required to strain credibility -- she's all over the psycho handyman, he's a mass of mental pathologies with Michael Jackson's haircut and a thing for the middle-aged widow next door (Melanie Hill), mother to the spectacularly large Ella Smith -- but mostly get away with it.

Emma Davies is quietly impressive as the adulterous wife of moony town doctor Tristan Gemmill. Don Gilet is an undercover agent who keeps a poster bearing a quote from Joseph Goebbels -- "The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed," blazoned across a background of fluffy white clouds -- on his living room wall. That's weird, right?



Where: Showtime

When: 10 to 11 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA VSLD (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language, suggestive dialogue, sex and violence).

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