Hugh Laurie's Roadkill is not car crash TV – but it's not great, either
Aside from the performances by Helen McCrory and Hugh Laurie, episode one is a bit of a disappointment, writes Eleanor Bley Griffiths.
Look – Roadkill is a perfectly serviceable drama. The main thought I have after episode one is: 'huh, that was an OK drama.' I don't love it. I don't hate it. It's fine. It's the supermarket sandwich of the drama world.
Written by David Hare and starring Hugh Laurie as Conservative minister Peter Laurence, the four-part political thriller is apparently about the "death of disgrace"; that is, the increasing tendency for politicians to shrug off scandals or misdeeds (personal and professional) which previously would have ended their careers – or at least relegated them to the back benches for a little while until public memory had faded.
And as we saw in the first episode, Laurence has plenty of scandals just waiting in the wings.
First up is a story about a dodgy meeting he had at a think tank in Washington, which newspaper reporter Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene) wasn't able to prove in court – but of course she's now jumped on a plane to the US, determined to dig up more information. Then there's daughter number one, pictured snorting coke at a night club; and possible daughter number two, who has just made contact from her jail cell. Oh, and he's having an affair with Sidse Babbet Knudsen.
I suspect Peter Laurence will sail through all of these scandals by blithely dismissing them as an irrelevance, or as unfair attacks from his enemies. Who cares about a politician having an illegitimate child or an extra-marital affair these days, Roadkill asks. Who cares about this newspaper allegation, which he's beaten in court anyway with a defamation suit? Is there ever any real fallout? Peter Laurence MP sees himself as a new kind of politician, and he's coated himself in teflon.
The problem is: none of that seems especially biting political commentary any more. David Hare has said that Peter Laurence is 'not based on anyone', and it's true that he doesn't resemble any one person, but he's also clearly recognisable as a politician for the modern age.
So far, so plausible. But my second complaint is that certain characters do behave in wildly implausible ways.
Why, for example, would Charmian Pepper be utterly flabbergasted that her editor would fire her after she changed her story in court and lost her newspaper £1.5 million? And as she is so stupidly surprised, are we still to believe that she is a talented investigative reporter? And what kind of strange HR investigation was that – and why on earth would the company let editor Joe Lapidus (Pip Torrens) get near Charmian again after her sexual discrimination complaint, without a lawyer present?
Then there's a subplot where Peter Laurence's chauffeur Sydney (Emma Cunniffe)'s girlfriend Margaret (Katie Leung) – keep up – is trying to pass on information to Peter's own barrister Rochelle (Pippa Bennett-Warner). Margaret has apparently decided she admires Rochelle after watching her in court, and now she expects her to investigate her own client. That's odd.
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And perhaps we're not really meant to understand what Prime Minister Dawn Ellison (Helen McCrory) is playing at in putting Peter Laurence in the Ministry of Justice, but she and Julia seem to have done it either for a laugh or to bring on a government scandal (or both). Which is also odd.
But Roadkill is saved, to some extent, by the calibre of the actors involved.
Hugh Laurie is predictably excellent as a Conservative MP with a populist streak and his own radio show; his performance is magnetic, with flashes of charm and callousness; both likeable and utterly detestable.
Then there's a prime ministerial Helen McCrory, who gives us a glimpse of what it would be like if Peaky Blinders' Aunt Pol made it to Number Ten. And if the next three episodes give them some good material to work with, I'm looking forward to seeing more of Sarah Greene and Pip Torrens and the rest of the top-notch Roadkill cast.
So I'm not wildly drawn in by the plot, or the concept, or the dialogue, or the characters. But hey! Despite my (many) complaints, I don't hate this show either. Let's see where it takes us.
Four-part drama Roadkill aired 18th October-8th November on BBC One, and is currently airing on Sundays on PBS Masterpiece in the US at 9/8c.