Traffik is a Channel
Four (UK) mini-series originally broadcast in 1989. An investigative
docu-drama, it traces the entire scope of the heroin. In the US,
it's most famous for being the inspiration for Steven Soderbergh's
2000 film Traffic, which won several Oscars. The mini-series
is both more thorough and more convincing than the feature, thanks to
brilliant writing and performances. Acorn Media's re-release
of Traffik on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary provides
another opportunity to revisit this outstanding production.
There are three primary plot
threads running through Traffik's six 50-minute episodes.
The first follows Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson), a British cabinet minister
leading the government's anti-drug campaign, as he travels between
Pakistan and London to forge an agreement with the Pakistanis that would
clamp down on the heroin trade and the farmers that supply it.
Then there is Helen Rosshalde (Lindsay Duncan), the English wife of
a German drug trafficker, who is determined to see her indicted husband
go free. Finally, there is Fazal (Jamal Shah), a Pakistani opium
farmer who is forced to leave his village and seek work in Karachi,
where he falls in with the country's biggest drug lord. These
three interwoven threads are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as
they each feature their own subplots and casts of characters.
(For those who have seen the
American feature, Lithgow and Rosshalde are paralleled in that version
by the characters played by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones,
respectively. Soderbergh's picture omits Fazal's story, and
replaces it with the plot surrounding the Benicio del Toro character.)
We see the poppy fields, the
tribal Pakistani heroin manufacturers, and the drug lord who exports
it. Then we follow heroin - as a substance and as a problem
- as it passes through the hands of German traffickers, into investigations
by German detectives, to English dealers and junkies, and into the offices
of 10 Downing Street. Series writer Simon Moore has channeled
a ton of research, and it shows. Even more impressive, it is never
dry. For all its ambition and multiple plot threads, Traffik
never takes shortcuts - never wades (even briefly) through implausible
territory in order to reach a narrative goal. The characters drive
the story, even while the series maintains a journalistic "non-fiction"
Lithgow is a cold fish, a righteous
bureaucrat in over his head; his slow realization of the odds he faces
and the inefficacy of his government's methods in fighting a "war
on drugs" is realistically gradual - as is his comprehension of
the extent and nature of his daughter Caroline's (Julia Ormond) addiction
to the very same drug he pursues. Helen Rosshalde's absolute
determination to free her husband is convincingly single-minded and
at times frightening. Fazal is ambitious in his own way, too;
after losing his ability to earn money as a farmer, he moves to the
city and into the inner circle of a fearsome drug lord, with tragic
consequences. These fully-formed characters drive the story, which
is refreshingly free from the blunt political messages that just about
any writer would be tempted to insert along the way.
For these reasons - incisive
writing, rounded characters, and propulsive storytelling - Traffik
is utterly engrossing. I watched all six episodes (five hours)
in a single sitting, which is unusual for me. After twenty years,
the show feels fresh and eye-opening. I doubt if any of the overarching
political and social issues touched on here have been ameliorated at
all over the intervening twenty years. If anything, the show will
seem even more relevant to American audiences now, given our alleged
military and security interests in that region.
Each of the two discs in this set come in slim plastic keepcases;
they in turn are housed in a glossy card slipcase.
Despite the yellow burst on
the front of the slipcase that reads "Remastered 20th Anniversary
Edition," the full-frame transfer is among the worst I have seen on
DVD. A number of factors could be to blame here, including the
transition from PAL to NTSC - or maybe the source material has degraded
over the years. Nevertheless, you will feel as though you are
watching Traffik through a glass of dirty water. I don't
know what "remastered" means to Acorn Media, but this doesn't
mesh with my concept of what a twenty year-old television show should
look like, remastered or not. The extended version of Episode
6 (see The Extras below) is preceded by a text screen that indicates
it has not been remastered; the difference between it and the
supposedly remastered episodes is negligible.
A flat but serviceable Dolby
Digital 2.0 mix is included. Things are very muted here.
Even the very 80s synth and electric guitar score by Tim Souster sounds
like its coming through a wall. All in all, though, the flatness
of the soundtrack actually seems atmospherically appropriate somehow.
As mentioned above, we have
the uncut version of Episode 6, as it was originally presented
on Channel Four. When PBS rebroadcast the series here in the States,
they cut thirteen minutes from Episode 6 to accommodate the one-hour
format of Masterpiece Theatre
(the edited version is here as well). It's a welcome addition
to this set. Also included is a short interview with series
writer Simon Moore and producer Brian Eastman, as well as a photo
gallery and production notes.
Traffik is probably
one of the best - and most influential - works ever produced for
television. It excels in every aspect of its dramatics, and manages
to be informative while maintaining the inherent complexity of its subject
matter. The distractingly shoddy transfer, however, is a major
drawback of this DVD. I urge everyone to see the show one way
or another, but beware this set's visuals before making a purchase.
If not for the transfer, this would be worthy of the DVD Talk Collector's
Series. Taking the whole package into account, I have to go with
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.