Roadkill is a political drama set in an alternate contemporary Britain. The central character, Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie) begins the first of four episodes as Minister for Transport in a Tory government. He is a populist self-made man and a rising star in the administration. The opening scenes establish that he has just successfully beaten a legal case. Laurence is clearly guilty, he’s a politician so that part is pretty much taken for granted from the get go. Dramatic interest arises from the snooping of a journalist who doesn’t accept the verdict and a number of additional strands around his life. This includes his serial infidelity and the ramifications of that, various shady dealings during his transition from property developer to politician and machinations relating to his relationship with the Prime Minister (Helen McCrory).
Casting Laurie in the main role was a masterstroke by the makers of the series. In his long career he has shown an impressive range from buffoonery (Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster) to cold cynicism (House) and a degree of sympathy (Mr Pip) in the characters he’s played. Here he steers a course that carefully avoids complete cynicism. Since the world the players inhabit is already uniformly dark and nearly all the characters are morally compromised, there’s little to be gained from a moustache-twirling stage villain approach. Instead the challenge for Laurie is how to inject sympathy or at least an understanding of Laurence. Another tack would be the direction of droll farce with a wink to the audience, as in the original (also British) version of House of Cards. Laurie could easily do that, but this is avoided and doesn’t fit the overall tone of the piece. The end result is a nuanced portrayal. We get a fairly realistic, clever, self-destructive political lizard slithering his way through the political landscape. When confronted by the consequences of his actions on the personal front and he can’t find a way to slime out of it, Laurie gives Laurence a facial pleading and blankness that goes some ways towards an understanding of the character. He’s empty and vapid but you can appreciate his trajectory.
The acting of the supporting cast is good. This comes despite being given explicitly observed negative elements to their backgrounds. One involving alcoholics is worked in as a fairly mechanical plot device. A more sophisticated writer would leave these negative personality traits to the actors when creating their backstories. The two standout supporting performances come from McCrory who is an oleaginous blend of Margaret Thatcher and just about any 3rd-Way politician projected from a spin factory. She smiles and glows while exuding a skeptical authority. The other is by Shalom Brune-Franklin who plays Rose, a young white-collar criminal who has a surprising connection to Laurence. She brings a fresh intelligence and vibrancy to the character that keeps you engaged, especially in her scenes with Hugh Laurie.
The story closes at an interesting juncture for Laurence’s career. It could either be left at the point it is, or result in a second series. We will have to wait to see what happens there. In the mean time, some provisional judgment can be made about the series. Firstly, as noted it is well acted. However there are some problematic aspects of the handling of the story as a whole. In passing, one of them is the unfailingly ‘clever’ retorts and remarks the characters make. Yes you have to be smart to be a savvy political mover and shaker, but even they don’t always have a good answer in real life. Since this is a drama and therefore a kind of heightened alternative reality, you could be either kind or annoyed about its rhetorical smoothness.
Another point is that If the desire of the creators was to skewer all politicians and powerful institutions such as the media and the legal system, which is an analysis Anarchists would welcome in certain forms, this could have been done without openly naming the Conservatives as the party in power. Instead you are left with the nagging feeling that it is very much the Tories in particular who are intended as the target of scorn. It feels like a soft and easy target, not wrong but not telling the full story.
A further element of concern is the way no ordinary people ever impinge upon the main protagonist’s existence. The only regular people we briefly meet are adoring fans who ask him for selfies. An exploration of how and why people like Laurence are supposedly popular despite their obvious failings and the role the people who make up the bulk of society play, would give the story a lot more substance. As it stands Roadkill produces an unintentionally ironic elitism in its exclusive portrayal of life among professional politicians and those at the apex of decision making. Possibly this is something that might get addressed in any subsequent series, but that seems unlikely without a fundamental change of style, focus and possibly length.
To sum up, Roadkill has effective acting and like its lead character may be flawed but captures some of today’s zeitgeist. Its worth a watch.
N.B. Roadkill can be accessed on TVNZ ON Demand