There are realms where British television clearly excels, but some recent across-the-pond productions regarding the war against terrorism feel heavy-handed, from the “Cracker” revival to this three-part miniseries, which makes “Syriana” look like a patriotic ode. Finding conspiracies and duplicitous Americans in every corner, “The State Within” boasts a handsome cast, but its convoluted story and rising body count strain credibility in a project that doesn’t coalesce until its final installment, and not fully even then. Thematically provocative in its specter of corporations manipulating governments, “State” mostly makes you yearn for the next hour of “24.”
Running six hours without commercials (with a longer version for the U.S.), this production’s greatest asset is star Jason Isaacs, playing the British ambassador to the U.S., Sir Mark Brydon. Suave and stern, he’s soon caught in a growing nightmare of the military-industrial complex run amok that, as one character observes, “makes Watergate look like a parking violation.”
When a U.K. flight from Washington crashes over the D.C. area (or rather Canada standing in for it), intelligence suggests the attack was the work of a British suicide bomber, prompting Virginia’s governor to begin rounding up British Muslims in his state. No less bellicose is the U.S. secretary of defense, Lynne Warner (Sharon Gless, with a perpetual Donald Rumsfeld snarl), though her close ties to a major defense contractor indicate something more could be at work.
Reinforcing the U.K.’s role as the sober diplomat to the United States’ raging Neanderthal, Sir Mark gets drawn into a plan to broker negotiations between the U.S. and an opponent of the ruthless president of Tyrgyztan. British lawyer Jane Lavery (Eva Birthistle), meanwhile, is seeking to prevent the execution of British national Luke Gardner (“Jericho’s” Lennie James), who has a shadowy past that will be revealed eventually (and much too late), pointing toward a major plot to trigger a war in Central Asia, thus benefiting a Halliburton-like defense contractor.
Ah, but if only that were the end of the plots and subplots. Instead, writers Lizzie Mickery (of the brilliant “Messiah” series) and Daniel Percival lay on improbable layers, from Brydon’s mysterious “Is he friend or foe?” right-hand man (Ben Daniels) to the ambassador’s ties to disgraced diplomat James Sinclair (Alex Jennings) to various operatives eliminating peripheral players to prevent “the truth” from coming out.
With his piercing eyes and tough-guy charm, Isaacs is a compelling lead, but he’s shackled by Sir Mark’s passivity and cluelessness before he unconvincingly leaps into action in the later chapters. And while there’s nothing wrong with a plot where “the entire credibility of Western governments is at stake,” there’s something awfully stale about shadowy corporations (think the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”) murdering people with impunity just to bolster their balance sheets.
In short, “The State Within” too earnestly and obviously pursues its big-business-as-heavy formula, particularly given the time required for the parallel storylines to converge. It’s not so bad to telegraph where a tale like this is heading, but it’s hard to fully enjoy the maze when the direct path to the finish line is so apparent.