Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Syndicate: More Money, More Problems

Time for a post on yet another amazing British TV discovery. The Syndicate, written by acclaimed television writer-director Kay Mellor, is a five-part series that aired its final episode on April 24th. So watching it involves a very small time commitment with very big returns.

The show follows a group of five supermarket workers who win the lottery. Each hour-long episode focuses on one of the five winners, although we still see their interactions with the other winners. By the time you get to the final episode, you are able to piece together disparate events and figure out why each person was acting so peculiar at various times. This narrative structure keeps you on your toes and you'll experience plenty of deja vu from one episode to the next as you go back to certain scenes from a new character's perspective.

The characters themselves are an intriguing bunch. Stuart (Matthew McNulty) and Jamie (Matthew Lewis) are brothers who are both strapped for cash but for very different reasons. Stuart's girlfriend is pregnant with their second child and they've managed to amass a great deal of debt as he struggles to make ends meet on his meager salary. Jamie, on the other hand, is a recovering coke addict, who is constantly in trouble with the police. The lottery win is the answer to their prayers, but unfortunately, it doesn't happen before they hatch a plan to steal some money from the supermarket till, with disastrous consequences. The first episode gives us Stuart's story, while Jamie's story is saved for last. Over the course of five episodes, it's astonishing to see how these characters evolve. Jamie seems rude and obnoxious, but when we finally hear his side of things in the final episode, he becomes a much more sympathetic character with some good points after all. I was impressed with how deftly Matthew Lewis handled his portrayal of Jamie and avoided making him a junkie cliche. Considering his prior acting experience was as Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies, he sure has grown up.

The other characters are slightly less desperate for money but find that it certainly comes in handy. Veteran British actor Timothy Spall plays Bob, the manager of the supermarket and a thoroughly nice guy. Of course, this means that he is subjected to terrible trials and tribulations, including a health scare that means he might not be around to enjoy his winnings for very long. Denise (Lorraine Bruce) is the warm-hearted and garrulous lady who just wants everyone to be happy but can't help putting her foot in her mouth. Sadly, her husband can't recognize her virtues and leaves her, so she determines to use her winnings to get a ton of plastic surgery and win him back. He returns the minute he hears about all her money, but her episode offers up a lot of twists and turns about his intentions and her dawning realization that she is worth so much more than 3.6 million pounds.

The final member of the syndicate is single mother Leanne (the lovely Joanna Page, complete with sing-song Welsh accent to make her instantly lovable). I couldn't wait for her episode (the penultimate one) because as the series progresses, you know that Leanne has something to hide. Winning the lottery is a financial blessing, but she is mysteriously unhappy and paranoid about the accompanying publicity. Her story unfolds gradually over the course of the hour and has potential ramifications that further illustrate that winning the lottery can't solve everything.

The Syndicate is a well-written, compelling drama that makes a perfect case for the British way of making television in compact series. It has been picked up for a second series, which will have the same premise but with a different group of people. As long as the new cast of characters have equally intricate and complex motivations and stories, I'm certain that I will enjoy the second series just as much as I enjoyed this one. Sadly, the downfall of compact British television is that I'll have to wait for at least another year. Oh well, if there's anything The Syndicate has taught me, it's that you can't have it all.

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