Secret State – A Review

We’ve just finished watching Secret State, Channel 4′s latest attempt to capture the conspiracy thriller crown. It was good, but it could have been so much better. Edge of Darkness is safe for another few years…

There were some touches of genius. The plot, based on A Very English Coup cleverly wove in all our current bogeymen in a bang up to date tale featuring drone warfare, Islamic terrorists, toxic bankers, careless and callous petrochemical companies, electronic surveillance and the rest. Technology was exploited to help tell the tale, not as an end in itself. I also admired some of the direction, especially those scenes which placed Charles Dance’s Machiavellian character deliberately lurking in the background.

But ultimately it was all a bit unsatisfying. I’ve identified several reasons why, but the main reason was simply that it was too rushed. There’s clearly an optimum length for a conspiracy thriller on TV, and it’s about 6 hours run time. Edge of Darkness was 6 hour-long episodes, and so was State of Play. The first series of Homeland, was 10 episodes of about 40 minutes each (about 6.5 hours). There’s an upper limit as well: at around 8 hours Hunted was just too bloody complicated, and while a series of 24 runs much longer, at about 17 hours, they religiously change villains and threats twice a day, so we’re back to roughly the 6 hours duration for each “segment”.

By contrast, Secret State ran for less than 3 hours (ignoring adverts and the now mandatory review and preview segments), and it just wasn’t enough to properly develop the story. Instead of slowly developing understanding, you had key plot elements revealed as almost throw-away sound bites. Watching an off-air recording with Channel 4′s longer-than-American commercial breaks just increased the frustration.

In Edge of Darkness there’s a fascinating scene in which three senior policemen are waiting in a hospital for news of a suspect who chose to throw himself out of a window rather than face arrest. It runs for about 2 minutes, but the suspect’s condition, the police officers’ frustration, and the growing despair of the central character are all communicated with almost no dialogue. They act. Secret State had no time for such luxuries.

Secret State also had precious little time for character development. The central characters were all wonderfully cast, but most went nowhere – we learned nothing about them as people and little about their drivers, beliefs and agendas. Most also behaved true to the initial impression, rather than surprising us with unexpected heroism or villainy. Apart from the brilliant opening episode Charles Dance was particularly under-used.

I’m not convinced you need “Previously” segments in a four episode show. If you can’t follow something for four weeks, that’s a rather poor lookout. However it’s the “Next time” segments which really wound me up. These were full of spoilers, and totally un-necessary when the drama was already sufficiently suspenseful to make sure viewers returned. Surely the time would have been better devoted to addressing at least some of the hurried treatment?

A conspiracy thriller doesn’t need a happy ending, but it does need a satisfactory one, in which the dispositions of the main parties and issues is clearly portrayed. Secret State failed in this, with a hurried ending which left a lot of questions unanswered.

By contrast, the BBC’s best effort this year, Line of Duty followed the rules, and while it had a few annoying plot and character flaws, it ended up more satisfactory than the better plotted Secret State.

And finally, Of . It may be just coincidence, it may be the sincerest form of flattery, or an attempt to gain praise by association, but I’ve noticed that the best conspiracy thrillers all seem to have three word titles with a common middle word. I await State of Secrets or Secrets of State with anticipation – remember, you read it here first.

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