TV Review: BBC's 'State Within' gives conspiracy theory a whirl

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And so it comes to this: America, the reviled.

Jason Isaacs stars in BBC America's political drama "The State Within."
Click photo for larger image.

"The State Within"

When: BBC America, 9 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Feb. 24

Rob Owen's Tuned In Journal

"Slings and Arrows" returns on Sundance Channel. Read about it in http://www.post-gazette.com/tv/tunedin/

Once Middle Easterners, Russians, Eastern Europeans and the Brits took turns playing the bad guys in entertainment, now it's time for Americans to twirl their evil-tinged mustaches in BBC America's "The State Within", an engrossing thriller that would seem preposterous if not for recent history with regards to the non-existent Weapons on Mass Destruction that led to the Iraq War.

Jason Isaacs, who used to play one of those British bad guys in American films like "The Patriot," is now the hero as British ambassador to the United States Sir Mark Brydon. He's thrust into the spotlight after a British jetliner explodes from a terrorist bomb and crash lands on the Beltway near Washington, D.C. He soon butts heads with the arrogant, belligerent U.S. Secretary of Defense -- sound familiar? -- played with snarly aggressiveness by Sharon Gless ("Cagney and Lacey").

"I want tanks at the airport!" she commands after the bombing.

"The State Within" is a liberal conspiracy theory right down to the evil Halliburton-like American corporation, Armitage, which was once run by Gless' Lynne Warner before she became Secretary of Defense.

The six-hour production -- more than two hours each night when commercials are added -- definitely held my attention, even through a murky international mystery that takes some time to make sense. The story extends to weave in the case of a death row inmate in Florida (Lennie James, "Jericho") and the government of the fictional Central Asia republic of Tyrgyztan, run by a human rights-abusing dictator on whom the U.S. relies for oil. (Again, any resemblance to reality is purely intentional.)

At a BBC America press conference last month in Pasadena, Calif., Gless said the miniseries' ending reminded her of the way "The Sixth Sense" made the audience re-evaluate everything they had seen in light of the big reveal. It's actually not that big of a shocker, but the final minutes do provide a decent twist followed by an annoyingly ambiguous ending.

"What we're interested in is the shades of gray, the shades of ambiguity in political expediency and decisions that are made," said writer Daniel Percival. "Very often the right thing to do is not the best thing to do or vice versa."

Writer Lizzie Mickery said the miniseries poses two key questions: Would you sacrifice the truth for your country? Or would you sacrifice your country for the truth? Those questions confront Brydon in "The State Within" as he tries to determine the best course of action in a bad situation.

"The State Within" may have a few shortcomings (most notably that non-ending after so many hours of investment in the story), but in this era when broadcast network miniseries are either non-existent or terrible (and cable minis often seem bloated), "State" is a welcome return to the juicy, complex miniseries of old.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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