Those familiar with David Morrissey solely as a heavy on “The Walking Dead” have missed out on a fascinating actor, which explains in part why Acorn TV — the streaming service of British drama — was eager to bring a showcase for him, “The Driver,” to the States. Yet this three-part, three-hour miniseries is a low-octane vehicle, casting Morrissey against type as a downtrodden cab driver who, unhappy and quietly desperate, agrees to work as the ersatz chauffeur of a crime boss. Despite the compelling central performance, “The Driver” follows a pretty standard roadmap in delivering a thrill-deficient thriller.
With so many overseas productions receiving distribution in the U.S., Acorn’s mandate is to expose those that don’t get siphoned off elsewhere. Thus far, the service has been enterprising about finding lower-profile projects with marketable and recognizable stars.
Enter “The Driver,” which, as constructed, feels either like an overinflated movie or a slightly undercooked limited series. (Showtime, it’s worth noting, is developing a U.S. version in which Morrissey would reprise his role, in much the way David Tennant did with “Broadchurch”/“Gracepoint.”)
Morrissey plays Vince, who is introduced experiencing a series of Travis Bickle-like indignities (including a drunk who vomits in the back seat of his cab) as he struggles to provide for his wife (Claudie Blakley) and daughter. It’s meant to establish why he’s willing to undertake the considerable risk when his just-paroled pal (Ian Hart) takes him to meet a shady character (Colm Meaney) looking for someone to serve as his no-questions-asked driver.
As is made clear in an initial sequence that then flashes back four weeks, Vince’s moonlighting will soon place him in peril, and present him with a serious moral dilemma. The infusion of cash, meanwhile, offers hope of happiness at home — buying things for his kid, and wining and dining his wife — although that’s a fleeting prospect, as he quickly hits the skids, with the burden of the acts to which he’s an accomplice weighing on his conscience.
Written by Danny Brocklehurst (“Shameless”) and Jim Poyser, “The Driver” remains grounded in reality, and happily doesn’t turn Vince into some sort of overnight superhero. The portrait that emerges, rather, is of a man already at his wit’s end, who almost immediately finds himself over his head dealing with these nefarious characters.
As good as the imposing Morrissey (also a producer on the project) is at shrinking himself, in essence, to convey that tension, “The Driver” spends too much time idling, and incorporates a family subplot — one that partially explains the moribund state of Vince’s marriage — that feels tacked on and underdeveloped. And while the first hour proceeds a bit too slowly, the third moves too rapidly in seeking to provide a sense of resolution.
So while this three-parter isn’t without merit — and there’s much to be said for that quick-hit format — the program demonstrates that perceptions within the U.S. of British drama’s gaudy quality are enhanced by networks’ ability to be selective. Seen that way, “The Driver,” despite a few worthwhile twists and turns, mostly feels like a somewhat flat retread.