Junkie Retread

Traffic's crowded with ideas, but imaginative gridlock keeps them from going anywhere

I support recycling as much as any right-thinking person, but should that environmentalist mindset be applied to television? Take, for example, the new three-part miniseries Traffic. Inspired by the 2000 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name, which in turn was a remake of the even better 1989 British TV series Traffik, it raises creative thrift to a whole new level.

Although both earlier versions dissected the drug trade, each followed the trail of a different substance—heroin in the original series, cocaine in the movie—and depicted the poverty-stricken farmers who cultivate the stuff, the drug cartels who distribute it, the politicians who win votes by railing against it, and the Western kids addicted to it. The latest edition of Traffic is most intriguing for the way it updates the drama's core idea—the porousness of national boundaries—for the post-9-11 world. Instead of limiting itself to the drug world, this Traffic takes on a whole array of smuggled stuff: illegal immigrants, terrorism, disease.

Multiple storylines intertwine and collide over the three episodes. The pivotal character is DEA agent Mike McKay (Elias Koteas, a regular in Atom Egoyan's films), who has been sent to Afghanistan on an undisclosed mission. Instead of returning home to Seattle with his partner Brent (Martin Donovan, another indie-movie favorite), Mike goes AWOL, forging a dangerous alliance with a local drug trafficker named Fazal (Ritchie Coster). He will lead Fazal to a cave (formerly occupied by members of Al Qaeda) that's chock-full of heroin if Fazal supplies protection along the way and splits the mammoth profits. Neither his boss nor his wife back home is sure if he's a rogue cop or a brave lone ranger playing a deadly game of bluff to nab crucial information. Elias Koteas's steely performance doesn't give much away, and this suspense propels the first part of the series. Like a 21st-century cowboy in the wild east, Mike clearly gets a testosteronic buzz from riding on horseback through minefields, bargaining for black-market weapons, and trekking through the beautifully-photographed desert, side by side with Fazal's bearded bandits.

We may not know yet whether Mike's the hero or the bad guy, but either way it's clear that he's the instigator of his own adventure. Most of Traffic's other central characters have been suckered by circumstance. Adam (Cliff Curtis), a refugee from Chechnya, used to be a schoolteacher but now scrapes together a shadowy living as a cab driver. When he discovers that a boat full of illegal immigrants bearing his wife and daughter may have sunk, he struggles to get information. By asking too many questions, Adam risks attracting the attention of the Russian mobsters who are somehow involved. Another figure knit into all this nastiness is Ben Edmonds (Balthazar Getty), a young property developer whose inner-city Seattle condo project has tanked. At the same time, his father's clothing factory is going under. "We don't make anything here anymore," the dad bitterly explains to Ben, a recent Wharton grad. "We design it, but it's cut and made somewhere else. . . . It's called globalization. They never taught you that at school?" To keep the company afloat, Ben teams up with a local Chinese Triad who uses the Edmonds' warehouse as a front for importing all kinds of cargo, implicating Ben in some genuine atrocities.

Initially I mistook Traffic for a smart, sharply-filmed miniseries, filing it somewhere between The Wire and Kingpin, two exceptional drug-world dramas from last season. But the second episode severely tested my suspension of disbelief as the narrative degenerated into a jumble of far-fetched subplots and promising characters remained stubbornly undeveloped: the Chinese gangster who's such a ninny it's impossible to believe he's the head of a mayhem machine, for instance, or the vaguely drawn junkie girl next door who hangs out in a dilapidated squat that looks like a leftover set from an early Gus Van Sant film.

This is a thriller that goes for thrills at any cost—not so surprising given that its director and executive producer is Stephen Hopkins, of 24 fame. Both programs maintain a relentless pace and topical plotlines that poke current national sore spots like bioterrorism and homeland security. The main difference is that 24 holds the viewer's attention rapt for 24 hours each season, whereas Traffic: The Miniseries had me nodding off after just six.

The script occasionally alludes to unsettling perspectives: the failure of the war against drugs, the possibility of mass bioterrorism, America's own dirty dealings. ("We're backing the warlords who are the major [drug world] players," says one of Mike's DEA colleagues, hinting at the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. "What do you do with your doubts? Where do you put them?") Despite expanding its scope to cover all kinds of global crossings, this latest version of Trafficends up with a much narrower perspective than either of its predecessors, which depicted the human costs and haywire effects on the third world of the first world's unflagging consumer demand for drugs. In the end, it becomes yet another jingoist action flick that presents us as the unlucky victims of globalization. Traffic weaves a whole assortment of bad guys—Al Qaeda! Chinese gangsters! the Russian mob! illegal immigrants! smack addicts!—into one giant menace that threatens our all-American way of life.

 
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