TV Review: BBC America Remembers Formative Years of ‘White Heat’

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CHICAGO – “White Heat” has echoes of “The Big Chill” in that it’s at least somewhat about people brought together by tragedy who are forced to then remember highlights and controversies of their past and how they continue to impact their present. And the screenwriting is clearly trying to extrapolate the journeys of these characters into something to be said about the social and cultural growth of their country over the last five decades. The intensity and melodrama of that kind of writing often leaves character and subtlety by the side of the road and so “White Heat” is an interesting show but not a particularly entertaining one. TV Rating: 3.5/5.0
TV Rating: 3.5/5.0

“White Heat” is a six-episode series that hits highlights of the last forty-seven years in U.K. history by charting them through the lives of a group of friends. It’s essentially a long, complex flashback as the show is framed around the arrival of Charlotte (the great Juliet Stevenson) to the flat of a recently deceased friend. At first, we don’t know which friend in these flashbacks has brought them together and so there’s an air of mystery around the drama. But that’s a minor subcurrent of the show and not it’s focus. The emphasis is on how these people, and the entire country, changed as they grew up.

White Heat
White Heat
Photo credit: BBC America

Naturally, the premiere (“The Past is a Foreign Country”) centers around one of the most socially tumultuous times in world history — the mid-’60s. Charlotte (played by Claire Foy as a teen) moves into a flat with six other students at a time when sexual liberation, civil rights, and equality for women were becoming important parts of the national conversation. She’s the “everywoman,” the average suburban girl who is meant to be our eyes into the show.

White Heat
White Heat
Photo credit: BBC America

She’s unsure how to respond to Jack (Sam Claflin), the rebellious leader of the group. Is he the new U.K. or just a prick? Jack pushes buttons to see how people respond, such as when he opens up the first meeting of flatmates by suggesting that old sexual rules are antiquated and that in order to live there everyone must sleep together. He’s passionate but his alleged forward thinking often disguises selfishness and need for attention.

Charlotte and Jack are the leads, at least to start, but they’re ably assisted by an interesting group that includes Jamaican Victor (David Gyasi), charismatic Lilly (MyAnna Buring), conservative Alan (Lee Ingleby), secretive Jay (Reece Ritchie), and Irish Orla (Jessica Gunning).

The show will jump forward after the premiere to hit Vietnam, IRA bombings in the ’70s, Thatcher’s England, and even all the way up to the ’90s. “White Heat” is packed with characters who feel like devices for social commentary and historical hindsight. Civil rights, gender rights, religious freedom — it’s a lot for one melodrama to handle and the weight of it all often makes the piece feel overly self-important. Consequently, it gets kind of dull because the people and their drama don’t resonate they way they would if the writing felt more genuine and less like devices.

“White Heat” is more interesting to think about and write about than to actually watch. After one episode, I don’t yet care about these characters. I’m interested in the show more as a writing exercise than anything emotionally engaging. Hopefully, it will change, but the premiere of “White Heat” leaves me a little cold.

“White Heat” stars Claire Foy, Sam Claflin, David Gyasi, MyAnna Buring, Lee Ingleby, Reece Ritchie, Jessica Gunning, and Juliet Stevenson. It premieres on BBC America on Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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