PBS’s Roadkill Is a UK Political Story That Pretends It Isn’t Regrettably Familiar
Playwright and screenwriter David Hare's political thriller stars Hugh Laurie as a politician whose career mirrors real life.Photos Courtesy of PBS TV Reviews Roadkill
From the moment we see Peter Laurence, Hugh Laurie’s self-made politico in creator David Hare’s England-set PBS miniseries Roadkill, we have already decided that he’s guilty.
It’s not because of the broadcast reporters, who are explaining to the cameras that he has just emerged victorious from a libel trial he’s waged against a newspaper that accused him of profiting off of his time in government and then lying about it. Nor is it the way that reporter Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene)—who let him off the hook by recanting her story—slinks away from the throng at the courthouse, burying her head in shame but also looking like she’s been biting her tongue. And it’s not even because Peter’s very own attorney, Rochelle Madeley (Pippa Bennett-Warner), stands in this crowd and just outright tells her subordinate (Danny Ashok’s Luke Strand) that she believes he is guilty.
Rather, it’s simply because of the self-satisfied smirk on Laurence’s face. This spackled-on veneer of invincibility is familiar on so many public figures who want us to believe that they have the right background, right finances, and right legal team to make them bulletproof even as scandals may continue to mount.
And, for Peter, they’re piling up fast. Everyone is out to get him, from members of his seemingly loyal staff to Prime Minister Dawn Ellison herself (played by Helen McCrory and her perfectly, and permanently, arched eyebrows).
The married father of two grown daughters, and reformed ladies man of the 1990s Notting Hill dating scene, Peter also has another child of whose existence he was previously unaware (Shalom Brune-Franklin’s Rose Dietl). She’s currently incarcerated for bank fraud—and he learns about her just before the PM moves him from overseeing the Ministry of Transportation to the Ministry of Justice. (He thought he’d get something fancier like Foreign Secretary, if he’s being honest).
Why are so many out to destroy Peter, this man of the people who tells it like it is and rose up from small business owner to real estate developer to prominent Conservative minister? Maybe they’re like the PM and think it’s uncouth that he aired his dirty laundry in court. Maybe those real estate projects weren’t so sound, and they have loved ones who got hurt. Maybe scorned journalist Charmian still wants to bring him down, especially now that she’s managed to uncover evidence from a reliable source. Either way, it’s a brilliant coincidence that all of this is happening right now.
It’s also happening as his personal life is crumbling. Of course he’s having an affair and of course she (Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Madeleine Halle) is getting too invested in their relationship and of course he’s not happy about that. His wife, Helen, (Saskia Reeves) is channeling all of her frustration into ostriching and directing the most perfect rendition of Handel’s Messiah that their hometown of Hastings has ever seen. Meanwhile, their youngest daughter, college student Lily (Millie Brady), was just caught on camera snorting cocaine and, after learning about her dad’s extramarital escapades, has forced her family to come home so that she can attempt to roast a chicken and say petulant things like “we’re all stuck in this broken down lift called Peter Laurence.”
A story about a shady real estate developer-turned politician, who claims he’s been mistreated by the press, is having an affair, and has spoiled and clueless children may sound familiar to anyone on either side of the pond (or, frankly, in any country). But creator Hare insists that this is a work of fiction, telling journalists at PBS’s Television Critics Association virtual press day in July that “we are losing the idea of fiction at the moment; everything is meant to be based on something.”
“I think there’s something new in the 21st century, which is that there is a sort of shamelessness in it,” Hare says then, mentioning both his prime minster, Boris Johnson’s, history of being fired for lying and President Donald Trump’s infamous comment while on the 2016 campaign trail that he could shoot somebody and not lose voters. Hare says that “there used to be something called disgrace, and when a politician did something wrong and was caught out doing something wrong, there was usually meant to be calamity, something was meant to follow. And now, nothing follows.”
Intent aside, it’s almost impossible to separate the real world from the fantasy one that Hare created with Michael Keillor, who directed all four episodes—especially if you are a viewer with progressive voting habits, and certainly if you note that the miniseries is premiering in the States two days before the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.
Laurie does what he can with playing up the charade of a political conman whose almost always good for a selfie opp and a sound bite. But the character of Peter is too much a stereotypical villain, decrying that “I have always been a rule-breaker. People like me because I break the rules!” while also turning his nose up at anyone or anything he deems beneath him—be it a prison inmate or his underling’s car. Plus, the miniseries’ decision to rely on the trope of female journalists in miniskirts who get themselves into precarious situations is, at best, a loathsome one.
The twist that Peter has a daughter who is both mixed-race and incarcerated does not get the attention it deserves, and is almost forgotten by the time that storyline opens the third episode—a pity, because one of the strongest scenes in the entire miniseries is when Peter and Rose finally do meet in the fourth episode. Another bright spot is Harry Escott’s haunting score for the series, and the Saul Bass-inspired main credit sequence, which are both addicting.
But the real issue with the series might actually prove Hare’s point. Perhaps because we’ve grown accustomed to the outlandish shenanigans of actual government officials, little in Roadkill is particularly original or captivating.
Roadkill premieres Sunday, November 1st on PBS.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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