There’s a thin line between quality drama and brash, soap-style excess.
“Flesh and Blood,” the new four-part “Masterpiece” tale, keeps skidding near the line. It stays on the good side, thanks to first-rate directing, dialog and … especially, acting.
This is a mini-series filled with skilled actors – led by Francesca Annis and Imelda Staunton (shown here, center and right, with Stephen Rea – who are PBS favorites. They bring some gravity to a story that wants to spin wildly out of control.
The opener (9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4) sets up the basics: There’s been a tragedy – maybe an accident, maybe not – that left someone dead or critically injured. Police do interviews, spurring flashbacks.
Vivien (Annis), a wealthy widow nearing her 70th birthday, fell for a new guy (Stephen Rea). Her three children, whose dad died just a year earlier, were skeptical. And Mary (Staunton), the neighbor, smiles a lot while worrying about losing her only friend.
Then writer Sarah Williams begins piling fresh problems onto each of the kids. There are the traditional cliches – the affair with a boss who keeps saying he’ll divorce soon, the accusations of a cheating spouse – plus some modern twists, from male prostitution to social-media taunting.
The only “normal” person in all of this is sweet, next-door Mary … who soon shows her own quirks.
In other hands, this could have been awful. But these are people viewers have long admired.
Three of them — Annis , Staunton and Claudie Blakely, playing the elder daughter – starred in the “Cranford” mini-series. Annis has ranged from “Reckless” and “Jane Eyre” to the light “Partners in Crime” mysteries; Staunton has ranged from the “Gypsy” musical to taking over (next year) as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown.”
Both are excellent here, as are the actors playing the kids – Russell Tovey (“Quantico,” “The Good Liar”), Lydia Leonard and Blakely – and those playing their love-interests and lust-interests. The lone weak spot is the one-note performance of Rea, who was an Oscar-nominee for “The Crying Game.”
These are talented people, hooking us into bumbled lives. The final explanation of what happened is fascinating and worth the wait … except that in the final hour, Williams can’t resist giving one more fierce blow to pretty much every character.
Soaps are like that sometimes. “Masterpiece” can be, too, but not as often.