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Acorn Media // Unrated // September 29, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted September 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author

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" flavor.

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.


The Package
Each of the two discs in this set come in slim plastic keepcases; they in turn are housed in a glossy card slipcase.

The Video
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.

The Audio
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.

The Extras
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.

Final Thoughts

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 Recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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