It’s no wonder the American producer Scott Rudin (”The Hours”) just snapped up the feature-film rights to ”State of Play,” the superb British miniseries that recently completed a run here on BBC America. ”Play,” written by Paul Abbott (”Cracker,” ”Touching Evil”), is a crackling six-hour ”conspiracy thriller,” as the author has dubbed it, about a scandal involving a member of the British parliament caught up in adultery, murder, and the oil-slippery ethics of the press. Casting ”Love Actually”’s genial-sleaze rock star Bill Nighy as a genial-sleaze editor was masterful; pressured by the government to back away from his juicy story, Nighy tells his pack-‘o-slavering-dog reporters to heel, because, he says blithely about a chunk of pricey real estate he owns, ”I can’t afford to see my house flash before my eyes.” You’d never hear an American newspaper editor – some latter-day Lou Grant; shirtsleeves rolled up, tie askew – be that blunt on this side of the pond.
Which is one element that makes British thrillers, a genre that basic cable’s BBC America owns right now, so bracing. Anyone who devours mystery novels knows that there’s a small revolution taking place abroad: British writers like Mark Billingham, and Scottish ones such as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Denise Mina, are hard-boiling their boozy heroes like Raymond Chandler once did here, but adding grim details of U.K. poverty, despair, and gallows humor. Their TV equivalents include current BBC America offerings like ”The Vice,” about a stubborn vice-squad police inspector, and ”Murphy’s Law,” one of those maverick-cop dramas whose shenanigans are clever and unsettling.
”Murphy’s Law” stars James Nesbitt as Det. Sgt. Tommy Murphy, an Irishman in London. He’s got the genre’s requisite battered past (his daughter was killed by the IRA) and contentious relationship with his immediate superior on the force (Alex Norton), as well as an ally, the curvy-but-I-hasten-to-add-smart Det. Inspector Annie Guthrie (Claudia Harrison). As created by writer Colin Bateman, ”Murphy”’s gimmick is that when our balding hero goes undercover, he doesn’t try to blend in – if anything, he becomes a chestier, more aggressive version of himself.
In the season premiere, for example, Murphy was tossed into a prison as a convict to get information from his cellmate about a kidnapper who calls himself ”Electric Bill.” Instead of playing it cool, Murphy peppers the guy with questions about his possible crimes. He jokes that he’s really a copper, and cheerily tells the suspect that he should feel free to pat him down to see if he’s wired. By being an intentional, chattering boor, Murphy wins over everyone, including viewers. Watching him go over the top is fun, especially since we know that he’s also got a temper that at any moment could put any rough customer in the prison hospital.
By contrast, ”The Vice”’s Inspector Pat Chappel (Ken Stott) is a glowering little man with a beaky nose; his suspicious eyes signal that he’s either a copper or a very bitter philosophy professor. (One of the side benefits of British cop TV is that the shows rarely feature anyone who would make it past the 8 x 10-glossy stage at an American TV audition.) Chappel’s furtive looks suit his role, since his personal history is haunted by a onetime prostitute he fell for and lost – a woman (Sarah Parish) who managed to become a middle-class wife and mother, but who’s drawn, disastrously, back into her past by Chappel’s investigation into a hooker’s murder.
”The Vice” is the weaker drama, with too much ”NYPD Blue” grunge and predictability, but you do get a superlatively nasty performance from Tim Piggot-Smith, still glimmering in American memory for his work in the ”Masterpiece Theatre” reliable ”The Jewel in the Crown.” In all these BBC America imports, characters engage in massive amounts of smoking and drinking, which makes the series positively invigorating to viewers used to sanitized Stateside network fare. Combine that with the shows’ fundamental distrust of authority, and these thrillers turn the conventions of the genre into subversive entertainment.