"So I'll wait until we're sane
Wait until we're blessed and all the same
Full of blood, loving life and all it's got to give
Englishman going insane
Down on my knees in suburbia
Down on myself in every way"
-David Bowie, "The Buddha of Suburbia"
David Bowie is my favorite musical artist. I spent my formative years tracking down every last track he ever released officially (ever heard the cover of "Like A Rolling Stone" he released on Mick Ronson's final solo album? I have), so it didn't take long for me to stumble upon his marvelous soundtrack for the BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia. And, as dedicated as I was to experience all things Bowie, I promptly got my hands on a copy of the show itself. So, in a way, I grew up with The Buddha of Suburbia. Having not seen it in years, I jumped at the chance to review it. I knew what I was in for, but the question is: does it hold up?
The Buddha of Suburbia tells the story of Karim (Naveen Andrews), a half-Indian, half-British teenager growing up in London in the 1970's. His father (Roshan Seth), an Indian Muslim has set himself up as Buddhist guru to better insinuate himself with the locals. This leads to an extra-marital affair with one of the neighbors. Karim has to deal with the disintegration of his family while also deciding who he wants to be, in addition to coming to terms with his budding sexuality and the latent racism of the period.
At only four episodes, the show charts a lot of growth for young Karim. Each episode is roughly its own self contained story--that is to say, each one has a beginning, middle, and end--but the events of each carries on into the next. Karim's father's infidelity is addressed in the first episode, but the fallout isn't seen until the second. While Karim is the subject of the show, several members of the supporting cast get the spotlight shone on them, as well. In particular, Jamila (Nisha Nayar), Karim's best friend, is forced into an arranged marriage by her father. The suitor is a fat, lazy slob, and a cripple to boot. Despite this, he ends up as a rather sympathetic character, as Jamila refuses to give him the time of day, causing him much distress.
Karim becomes the focus of the show in the latter episodes, as he tries to make it as an actor, forcing him to come face to face with racism towards immigrants. For those who don't know, England saw a lot of immigration, particularly from Pakistan, in the late 60's and early 70's (fun fact: The Beatles classic "Get Back" was originally jokingly titled "No Pakistanis" in a home demo), and many born and bred Englishmen were resentful of these new neighbors. Karim becomes a victim of this a few times throughout the series.
The show contrasts these serious situations with a hearty dose of humor. At one point, Karim's father entreats Karim to stay at the house of his mistress, saying, "Am I not your loving father? Didn't I wipe the shit from your ass when you were a baby?" To which Karim replies, "No, you didn't. Mum did!" There's also a lot of situational humor. Jamila's marriage is often played for laughs, as her husband is a slovenly buffoon. But I found that the humor never undercut the drama. Instead, by providing a contrast, it put the drama in a different light.
So now for that pesky question: Does it hold up? While I'm certainly more critical now than I was when I first saw it, The Buddha of Suburbia still provides many of the same pleasures I remembered. The later episodes aren't as strong as the earlier ones, but there's a fairly consistent level of quality running through the entire miniseries. And you have to admit, it does have a great soundtrack.
BBC Video presents The Buddha of Suburbia in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Given that this was a British miniseries from 1993, one shouldn't expect a sterling technical presentation. Colors are flat and subdued. The transfer itself is average.
Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, The Buddha of Suburbia could stand to have some punching up done in the audio department. The dialogue was mixed rather low, while the music was much, much louder.
Commentaries on all four episodes by the director and writer. Also included is a music video by David Bowie.
While The Buddha of Suburbia could be seen as just another coming of age story, it's a well told one with a great soundtrack and some memorable moments. However, given that the series probably won't offer a lot of replay value, the best I can do is recommend that you Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.