The new Masterpiece political thriller Roadkill is certainly entertaining viewing, but it often feels as though it arrived on our screens from a parallel dimension, one in which any fallout from Brexit didn’t really happen and where a pandemic isn’t dominating every conversation in the halls of government and on the news.
Occasionally, shows are simply victims of accidents of timing. Sometimes that can work in their favor, but more often than not, it doesn’t, and a new, highly-touted series arrives at the worst popular moment to get any sort of traction. November 2020, just days from a highly divisive U.S. presidential election and with cases of coronavirus spiking in multiple places around the globe, feels like the worst possible moment for a show like this to premiere.
Because no matter what your personal politics might happen to be, it’s difficult to believe that anyone out there was hoping for a show like this at this precise moment in time. Maybe there’s a world where watching Hugh Laurie play a scumbag government minister who gleefully profits off his time in government, sues those who try to hold him accountable, and has an endless list of personal and moral failings, is fun to watch.
But I hate to break it to the folks behind this show: That world is not the one we’re currently in.
The thing is, Roadkill is a perfectly serviceable drama. You can tell from the very first episode that it’s clearly got plenty of twists in store for us and its dialogue is pure, painfully pointed David Hare. Star Laurie is clearly having a blast in the lead role, revealing in the chance to be a corrupt dirtbag who manages to charm the voters with his populist insistence that he’s working for change. And we all know I’m always here for anything Helen McCrory chooses to do, even if her scheming Tory PM doesn’t have a ton of depth, and I can’t quite figure out if she’s genuinely trying to sink Laurie’s Peter Laurence or use him for her own ends.
But it’s also just all a bit much.
I mean, right now, is there really a person on the planet that doesn’t already know that the concept of disgrace in politics is essentially dead? If any official is willing to brazen their specific scandal of the day out, the news cycle will move on and they’ll generally be allowed to both keep their jobs and continue being generally terrible. So, the idea that Laurence will still probably get away with everything, in the end, isn’t shocking or groundbreaking, it’s the world we live in every day now. And because of that, there’s no transgressive glee in watching an elected official break bad, knowing that we’re safe in a world where norms and rules still apply. Because we’re not, and we all know it.
Roadkill opens with Peter Laurence triumphant, having sued a newspaper and won because Charmian Pepper, the journalist who initially reported his scheme of personal grifting, changed her story in court. How precisely we made it all the way in front of a judge without anyone questioning what sort of hard evidence she actually had is beyond me, but it doesn’t matter because now she’s determined to dig up more, as payback for the fact that she got sacked by her newspaper after costing them a million pounds in fees. Okay, girl, where was this energy the first time around?
Naturally, it turns out that Laurence has more than just potentially shady business dealings in his past. He’s having an affair because of course, he is. His daughter, Lily, is getting photographed snorting coke at nightclubs. He may or may not have an illegitimate daughter who’s attempting to blackmail him…from prison. He’s slept with so many women he can’t remember them all, has a call-in talk show where he chats everything from the NHS to Manchester United with his constituents, and is wildly ambitious.
So much so that it makes it hard to take anything he says seriously – on paper, I think his character is supposed to be a true believer in the power of conservative government. But he’s a poor salesman for any actual Tory positions, and his generally self-serving demeanor makes his purported beliefs feel cynical and opportunistic more than genuine. Plus, you know, he’s out here gleefully plotting to carve up the NHS for the benefit of private American companies so I don’t know how much of a role model we’re expected to see him as anyway.
To be fair, Roadkill’s first episode moves along at a brisk clip, with enough disparate yet vaguely connected plot lines to let you know that they’re all going to connect at some point and a killer cast that works hard to sell you every single nonsensical plot twist. (Why, for example, would Laurence’s own defense lawyer suddenly consider investigating his potential shadiness on the word of an anonymous phone call? Even if she did think he was probably guilty? No idea!) There’s a prison riot, an illicit affair between Laurence’s favorite advisor and the Prime Minister’s personal secretary, and a mystery source that passed Laurence’s travel diary to the press. Secrets and betrayal, as usual, make for compelling TV.
But it also feels so darn tiresome right now.
What did you think of the first episode of Roadkill? Any theories about Peter’s true motives or how the potential prison daughter fits into things? Let’s discuss in the comments.