Spread over five weeks on “Masterpiece Theater,” “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard” blends a somewhat unwieldy mix of soapy elements with an intriguing premise: What would happen if an ordinary housewife/supermarket manager, through a strange confluence of events, was swept into office as Britain’s prime minister? Approximating some of the same Capra-esque charms as “Dave” (including cameos by actual U.K. pols that won’t mean much to Yanks) along with insider glimpses a la “The West Wing,” this six-hour production is buoyed by Jane Horrocks’ endearing performance in the title role but doesn’t fully exploit its promise.
Witnessing an embarrassing skirmish between two politicians early in the two-hour premiere (hourlong installments will follow on a weekly basis), Horrocks’ Ros Pritchard rather impulsively decides to run for office, buttressed by financial support from her multimillionaire boss (Frances Tomelty). Her billboards state “Politics isn’t rocket science,” and she captures the public imagination even if she’s barely taken seriously by establishment pols from the Labour and Conservative parties, before a member of the latter, Catherine Walker (Janet McTeer), recognizes the prevailing winds and jumps ship to what is dubbed Pritchard’s “Purple Alliance.”
Gaining power, however, and knowing what to do with it are separate matters, and as Ros is warned at the outset, “One slip, one mistake, they’ll crucify you.” Moreover, the new job unsettles not only her husband (Steven Mackintosh), who has his own skeleton-filled closet, but also her older daughter Emily (Carey Mulligan), who shakes up mom by posing near-nude for a magazine.
Written by Sally Wainwright, “Mrs. Pritchard” contains wish-fulfillment elements, presenting a politician who seems incapable of guile and pledges to always speak the truth. Those qualities are repeatedly tested as Ros seeks to protect her family and endure the job’s demands, from delivering bad news to soldiers’ families and distancing herself from President Bush to withstanding the fallout from a tell-all book.
Horrocks brings vulnerability and grit to the role, but alas, her growing pains are just half the narrative. The rest proves decidedly cliched, from the Pritchards’ intrafamilial politics to Walker agonizing over her September-May relationship with a twentysomething aide (Tom Mison). Given the main attraction of a West Yorkshire woman presiding over Parliament, these “Bold and the Beautiful” side plots feel unnecessary, even if they’re relatively well done.
Ultimately, the dominant message is that even a well-meaning novice is hard-pressed to avoid scandal and moral compromise in grappling with the sudden celebrity, prying eyes and backstabbing that go with governing. “It’s not easy being squeaky clean, is it?” Walker, whom McTeer plays with world-weary cynicism, asks Ros near the end.
Clearly, it’s not easy, just as it’s difficult to keep a limited series on track. And while television, like politics, certainly isn’t rocket science, “Mrs. Pritchard” provides a reminder applicable to both — namely, how a clever idea is, finally, only as good as its execution.