[2 November 2011]
If there has ever been a television series that has come within inches of perfection it’s The Street, a show that is as touching, real, and thought provoking as the best literature. This British television drama lasted three seasons (or ‘series’ in the parlance of British TV lovers) and a new DVD set that collects all 18 episodes across six discs is a textbook example of great acting and writing.
Set in a working class neighborhood in Manchester, The Street examines how minor revelations and everyday secrets transform our lives suddenly, inexplicably, inevitably. In the first series, a man is faced with the harsh realities of retirement and old age (“Stan”), a school teacher’s character is brought into question not for what he does but for what others believe he has done (“The Flasher”) and another man proves that he is more than capable of compassion (“Asylum”).
“Stan”, featuring Jim Broadbent, is one of the numerous episodes that traverses the fine line between comedy and tragedy as Stan McDermott must not only live up to the fact that his life is winding down but that the life he’s lived is not necessarily the life he always believed it was. (And, as he learns, his life is vastly better than he imagines.) “Asylum”, featuring Tim Spall (as Eddie McEvoy, a most magnetic character who reappears throughout the show’s entire run) is honest without being cliché and reveals its main character’s compassion without the episode devolving into a sentimental wasteland.
The first season closer, “Sean and Yvonne”, is by far the most harrowing and tense of all in the first batch (the opening “The Accident” runs a close second) as Yvonne (Christine Bottomley) tries to escape her abusive husband, Sean (Lee Ingleby). Although we never fully understand Sean’s particularly tortured soul Ingleby portrays the character with a depth and understanding that renders the young man as more than the typical one-dimensional abusive husband.
It’s this particular trait that most of the actors in virtually all the episodes carry with them-an ability to both embrace and cast off viewer expectations and lend unfathomable depth to spectacular scripts from the likes of series creator Jimmy McGovern, Arthur Ellison, and Roy Boulter. It’s Ellison who pens the improbably complex “Twin”, which opens the second series. In that episode we meet Joe Jennerson (David Thewlis) who, desperate to leave his own life behind, does the unthinkable and adopts his brother’s life in a very real and damaged way.
“Demolition” explores family dynamics and sexuality in a gripping if not always convincing way, while “Taxi” features an incomparable performance from Gina McKee, an actress who commands not only our eyes but also our imaginations as we try to probe the dark psychology that allows her character (Jan Parr) to live a remarkably damaged life.
The Alice Nutter-penned “The Letter” is both dark and heart-warming while the “The Promise”, written by McGovern, is in tune with the best episodes as you watch, heart beating with incredible rapidity while lives unravel, wind themselves back up again, and transform into something that is often not better but almost always decidedly different.
It’s only in the final round of episodes that the show falters somewhat. The third season opener, “Paddy” (with Bob Hoskins), succeeds in showing the dynamics of community and asks the audience to think about a moral dilemma that has no positive resolution; but “Dee” (featuring terrific performances from Anna Friel and David Bradley) is little more than a variation on the hooker with a heart of gold cliché; and “Polish” is a messy story that works too hard at making a rather simple–and obvious–point. But the closer, “Eddie”, is rooted in the same solid model of writing and acting as all the best episodes and Spall’s performance will leave you either on the verge of or covered in tears.
Throughout, the characters are fully human and behave as such––they rely on each other for guidance and for answers (when it becomes difficult to establish the nationality of a character in “Asylum” no one opens their laptop and performs a Google search, a sure sign that the series is doing something right), whether that guidance or those answers are right or wrong.
There are no bonus features on this set but that hardly matters; in a way, the absence of any such materials only enhances the experience and allows us to believe that maybe everything we’ve seen across those 18 hours is more real than we imagined.