From feature films like Crash and Babel to television series like Lost and The Wire, the past several years have been notable for the success of intricately complex fiction. With large ensemble casts, tangenitally connected storylines, and overarching themes. these dramatic anthologies serve as an interesting comment on our tacit desire to be connected in an increasingly fragmented global society.
Since narrative understatement has never been a hallmark of (mainstream) American entertainment, Hollywood has met this growing demand for intricate storytelling with slick crime dramas, glossy historical romances, and high concept supernatural thrillers. As is too often the case, audiences wishing for programming with a quieter and more-subtle examination of character, story, and theme must look elsewhere.
Luckily, the British are still a consistently reliable source for smart, unassuming, and textured dramatic fiction. Continuing in this trend is The Street, the new BBC series by acclaimed writer Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, Priest). Set in the working-class outskirts of Manchester, England The Street follows the interconnected lives of six neighbors. While the structural premise of this series may seem trite or even gimmicky, there is nothing false about this authentic set of characters and their well-observed stories.
Upon first glance, the premiere episode of The Street seems to be treading in well-worn television clichés. Angela Quinn (Absolutely Fabulous’ Jane Horrocks), a bored housewife and mother of three, begins a casually intense affair with her (married) neighbor and friend, Peter Harper (Shaun Dooley). Drawn together less out of love and more out of a desire to break free from the daily monotony of their lives, these two neighbors look forward to their morning sex and chocolate sessions with the blithe enthusiasm of teenagers.
Angela and Peter soon learn that no affair, however casual, goes unnoticed or unpunished. One hurried morning, in the rush to leave for work, Peter accidentally runs over Angela’s young daughter with his car. Peter’s momentary distraction (caused by his trying to steal a quick glimpse of Angela in her house window as he drives by) has long-reaching and devastating effects on both families and the neighborhood. With an unvarnished and delicate humanity, this first episode explores the anger, recrimination, sadness, remorse, loyalty, responsibility, and love that results from Angela and Peter’s affair.
While the accident is central to the first episode’s storyline and helps to establish the neighborhood and its denizens, it is not a continually repeated plot device meant to highlight the interconnectedness of this series’ disparate set of characters. Rather, each successive episode of The Street is a richly self-contained story that highlights a different neighbor. Naturally, characters recur in each other’s stories, but only to add an authentic mood and texture to this working-class neighborhood. Characters may be linked on the The Street but the lives, loves, and concerns of this group of neighbors are clearly separate.
In the second episode we meet Stan (Jim Broadbent), a dedicated warehouse foreman who is forced into retirement on the eve of his 65th birthday. For his 40 years of loyal service, Stan is dismissed with a cheap watch and a meager pension that will most likely force him and his wife (Sue Johnston) into poverty. Faced with this ignominious future, Stan resolves to kill himself before his 65th birthday and secure for his wife a greater lump sum of money than would be doled out if he began collecting on his meager pension. In lesser hands, this character and his exploits would be dismissed as simple tragicomedy, but with sharp writing and wonderful acting by the immensely talented Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Iris) a fuller and more complex picture of one man’s humanity is drawn.
Behind each red door on The Street there is another character, another life, another story that is just as detailed and involving as the one before: there is Brian (Neil Dudgeon), a well-respected family man and schoolteacher whose life is terribly upended by a series of false accusations, cheap innuendo, and misplaced fears; the local taxi driver, Eddie (Timothy Spall), a benevolent man that has been marginalized for so long by his wife that he now lives in a shadow of his own life; Billy (Jody Latham), a young man struggling with the demands of adolescence and the care of his blind father; and at house number 4 lives Yvonne (Christine Bottomley), a young mother and wife, who is desperately trying to hide the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband.
What distinguishes The Street from the vast majority of shows on television today is its quiet attention to naturalistic, fully textured, and thoroughly complicated characters. The plots of each episode may be separate and distinct, but this series is cohesive and drawn together by its well-paced direction, strong acting, and excellent writing.