'White Heat' Looks Back on Decades

Maysa Hattab

The opening episodes of White Heat appear at pains to list landmark moments in recent history in a manner that feels like a lecture on What the Sixties Did For Us.

White Heat

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Lindsay Duncan, Sam Claflin , Claire Foy, Myanna Buring, Lee Ingleby, David Gyasi
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: BBC America
Air date: 2012-05-09

White Heat follows the interactions of seven flatmates, from their first meeting in the mid-'60s to the present. The BBC series, consisting of six episodes and premiering on BBCA on 9 May as part of its Dramaville series, begins as they reunite after 20 years apart, following the death of one of their members.

They’re a diverse set, chosen to cross class, racial and gender boundaries, as part of a "social experiment" undertaken by their would-be their landlord Jack (Sam Claflin). Though it soon becomes clear that his interest isn’t purely academic, the nascent feminist Charlotte (Claire Foy) is immediately taken with the project, as well as with Jack. To the others, he's plainly a charmless trust fund baby rebelling against the status quo and his suave politician father (Jeremy Northam).

The first two episodes' focus on Jack and Charlotte makes the series tough to like initially. Young Jack and Charlotte are both one-dimensional in their self-absorptions, and I found myself wishing for more time with Juliet Stephenson and Lindsay Duncan as the older, present day versions of Charlotte and another flatmate, Lilly: these actors convey a mutual restraint and tension in tiny gestures; their scenes together make the mystery at the series' center -- why the flatmates "lost touch" -- seem more intriguing than it deserves. That mystery is only conventionally hinted at by the spare and chilly current day flat, where only a few fragments of the flatmates’ former lives remain.

That said, the flashback scenes -- during which a more cluttered flat is shot using warmer light -- are often too expository, littered with forced dialogue and familiar newsreel footage. Moreover, the opening episodes of White Heat appear at pains to list landmark moments in recent history in a manner that feels like a lecture on What the Sixties Did For Us, in which no cliché remains unmolested, from the death of Winston Churchill and the war in Vietnam to the advent of the Pill and the sexual revolution.

Such history lessons might illuminate a golden time for apathetic Gen-Y-ers for whom university tended was less a mind-expanding, character-forming initiation into Life and Love, and more a frantic delaying of the inexorable slide into our limping economy. But they're patronising to anyone over 20 and young viewers who know even the slightest bit about history. Once past the archival footage, the '60s-set scenes are most engaging when sketching -- with few words and horrible yawning silences -- the corrosive resentment between Charlotte’s parents, with Tamsin Grieg especially affecting as her unhappy mother.

Subsequent episodes move past Jack and Charlotte to suggest how some of the other flatmates interact during the interminable brown of the '70s. Now, Alan (Lee Ingleby) regularly butts heads with Jack while also nursing a devotion to the elegant, artistic Lilly (here played by MyAnna Buring). And Jay (Reece Ritchie) struggles with his sexuality and to find a meaningful relationship, points primarily made through the show's irksome lecturing tendency. As a result, Jay seems to exist in White Heat in order to challenge other characters' homophobia.

Like those other characters, Jay's sense of himself changes as the show enters into the '80s, with references to the Falklands conflict and "home front" struggles, as the flatmates' efforts to start their own families. Now women's issues become more public too: Lilly subsumes her creative ambitions in the quest for a baby and a business, while power-suited Charlotte worries that becoming a mother will mean a loss of self. By now her feminism is no longer nascent, and she helpfully voices the concerns of feminists who found Margaret Thatcher’s ascent isn’t quite the hoped-for leap forward for womankind.

As White Heat covers so much historical ground -- and offers a range of ageing makeup effects -- it suffers on occasion from a lack of humour. Such self-seriousness might be an accurate reflection of the temper of the 20something flatmates, but it's downright dispiriting in characters approaching middle age. This is most evident during the show's scrabbling for modern resonances, like Jack’s impassioned speech about the wrongs of government and a country in the grip of austerity.

Like the sober history lessons in earlier episodes, Jack's speech clashes with the series' opening titles sequence, which recalls that of How I Met Your Mother. Both consist of a series of group drinking snapshots, just so much superficial nostalgia. White Heat's featured watering hole isn’t a Manhattan bar, but instead, a dour, dingy London pub, where the flatmates meet in moments of celebration and crisis. In these scenes and others, the series can be demanding, requiring an effort to suspend disbelief and also overlook the characters' frequent unpleasantness. This work does pay off, however, when White Heat culminates in a satisfying spilling of secrets and a surprisingly moving finale.

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