Wednesday, September 30, 2015

TV Time: The Casual Vacancy

 The Casual Vacancy. 2015. Dir: Jonny Campbell. Starring Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie and Abigail Lawrie. HBO Production.

The Casual Vacancy the book made waves when the book was published in 2013 as author J.K. Rowling's first foray into writing for adults. I remember how many readers were expecting something light and expressed disappointment that yes, this was dark and no, they were not going to relive Harry Potter in its pages. I haven't read Harry Potter or The Casual Vacancy, but I do want to read the latter after watching the very compelling HBO miniseries.

The small English country town of Pagford seems like an idyllic tea-and-scones hamlet, but there is trouble brewing under its calico-print surface. A wealthy lord, Sweetlove, long ago left a large property in trust for the benefit of Pagford and an adjacent area, The Fields. The Fields is now a run down housing development ("estate" in the local parlance) whose residents are poor and deal with rampant unemployment and drug addiction. The Sweetlove property is now a community center and drug treatment center bringing the Fields residents into Pagford.

The present Sweetloves want to turn the property into a luxury spa, and some Pagford residents think getting the Fields residents to leave their town is a great idea. Barry Fairbrother is Pagford resident and town council member who advocates passionately for the treatment center; Shirley and Howard Mollison, also on the council, are an elderly petit-bourgeois couple with social-climbing ambitions who see a chance to butter up the aristocratic Sweetloves and thereby raise their own social standing. When Barry dies suddenly, a space opens up on the council (the vacancy of the title), and along with it a power struggle emerges in the town. Meanwhile, a Fields girl named Krystal struggles with her mother's heroin addiction and it's through her story that we see the human consequences of the fight.

"The Casual Vacancy" is dark, depressing and raw, and it doesn't end well for anybody. By the end everyone is broken, beaten or dead; consequences and karma are passed around like snacks and while some relationships are healed, most are quite a bit worse for the wear. It's not that the characters don't care about each other. It's more that the show is almost too realistic in its portrayal of actions and after-effects. Michael Gambon is positively awful (in the good sense) as the wretched Howard Mollison, a grotesquely selfish man. All the actors are great. But the narrative as a whole is so unrelentingly negative, it's hard to say it's enjoyable in any way. I will say it's addictive viewing though and it definitely got me hooked. I'd recommend it for people who like dark suspense and realism; I'm just not sure how big a group that is.