Timed for a potential Traffic Oscars sweep or as ammunition for a Steven Soderbergh backlash, the MT&R’s screening of Traffik serves the cause of skeptics and completists alike. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alastair Reid’s five-episode series (shown in two installments) also turns out to be the daring, compassionate, and meticulously reasoned work Soderbergh and adapter Stephen Gaghan couldn’t quite pull off.
First broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 1989, Traffik establishes the three-story structure used in Soderbergh’s film. Two of its plotlines go largely unchanged in the Yank version: A crusading, morally overwhelmed London MP (Bill Paterson) copes with his drug-addicted daughter (Julia Ormond) and disintegrating marriage, while the English wife (Lindsay Duncan) of a jailed Hamburg heroin distributor resuscitates her husband’s business under the scrutiny of a pair of detectives. The third segment, however, in which a Pakistani opium grower (Jamal Shah) is forced to work for an unctuous drug smuggler (Talat Hussain) after his farm is destroyed by government troops, has no analogue in the remake.
Traffic‘s only new scenario, with Benicio Del Toro as a cagey Tijuana cop, is easily its best acted and most structurally complex segment. But the Pakistani thread in Traffik provides a narrative balance missing from its Hollywood kin—it reveals the hypocrisy of imperialist drug policies at ground level (the destruction of the opium crops is a result of Britain’s meddlesome antidrug efforts) and lends a touch of cultural and socioeconomic realism to the glamorous, melodramatic goings-on. These scenes also allow Reid to develop meaningful parallels between scenarist Simon Moore’s three sets of characters, lending emotional credibility to the story’s themes of loss and impossible compromise.
For all its virtues, Traffik is often visually uninteresting and stiffly played. The MT&R’s video projection doesn’t help, nor do Masterpiece Theatre host Alastair Cooke’s stern, laughably earnest between-episode interjections (the series originally aired in the States on this PBS warhorse). And while Paterson, Duncan, and Shah are all fine, under Reid’s direction they function more as pieces in a vast and elaborate game than as convincingly motivated characters. In hindsight, Traffik could’ve benefited from something akin to Soderbergh’s warmth and knack for flirtatious repartee.
In the end, though, Traffik is less a polemic on the thorny “issues” surrounding the drug trade than a carefully wrought examination of human failings both public and private. If, like its American counterpart, it avoids the topic’s underlying components of race and class, it at least acknowledges poverty and bigotry in its Pakistani sequences and draws harsh, hard-earned conclusions overall—an altogether amazing accomplishment for a TV show produced over a decade ago in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.