'Guerrilla': TV Review

Sky Atlantic
Excellent all around.

Showtime and John Ridley deliver a series of exceptional depth (starring Idris Elba and Freida Pinto) as it explores racism and radical politics in 1971 London.

It's a measure of the storytelling success of Showtime's exceptional new miniseries Guerrilla that it's somewhat annoying to have it premiere right in the heart of one of the busiest times of the year for TV critics and in the company of a string of the medium's finest shows, because it demands to be seen episode after episode.

That's more praise than some may be able to appreciate, so try this: Guerrilla, created, written and partially directed by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, American Crime), is already one of the best things appearing on TV in 2017 and could be an Emmy powerhouse. This co-production with Sky is a huge score for Showtime.

Set in London in 1971, the show ostensibly sets out to explore race relations between British blacks and immigrants and a white English society sheltered from cultural and political agitation by an overly aggressive white police force — and, in Guerrilla, a part of it expressly created (the so-called "black power desk" at Scotland Yard) to deal exclusively with blacks. But what happens in short order is that Ridley proves he's adept at not only understanding the similarities between 1960s American race issues and those of Britain in 1971, but all the varying differences as well.

As Guerrilla deepens in its examination of political activism — at a time when radical splinter groups of varying interests were popping up all over Britain in support of causes worldwide — Ridley deftly portrays how people don't line up in tandem just because the color of their skin is the same or they all want justice and equality in their political systems. By examining the contrasts between these struggles in a smart, nuanced fashion, Guerrilla skillfully shows just how great Ridley has become at making complicated dramatic storylines for the small screen. Fans of American Crime may not immediately take to the more Anglophile nuances of Guerrilla (which includes understanding of the differences between being English and being British, plus an understanding of both white Irish and the South Africans in British society), but they should definitely recognize the director's ability to get excellent performances from his cast.

In some ways, the twisty and wonderfully layered main plot in Guerrilla takes a backseat to both Ridley's writing and a cast that's one of the better ensembles in ages.

As the miniseries opens, the focus is on Marcus (Babou Ceesay, who gives not just an Emmy-worthy but an Emmy-winning performance here) and Jas (Freida Pinto, in a role that allows her to shine more than she did in Slumdog Millionaire), a young couple feeling on the outside of British culture as immigration laws are being introduced and are slowly becoming radicalized in the process. They are fighting for the release of Dhari (Nathanial Martello-White, who completes a trifecta of standout performances). Marcus and Jas consider Dhari a political prisoner and it's the burgeoning passion of Jas — with a more reluctant and more methodical Marcus in tow — that fuels the couple to do more, to fight harder and leave a legacy.

Jas used to date Kent (Idris Elba, an executive producer here, too), but the artist and suave social scene-maker was never into politics; Jas left him because ultimately he wanted to go along to get along.

"They're changing the laws on us," Jas says. "People are going to ask what we did. I'm not going to tell them I sat on a fence."

Ridley shows an acute ability to create characters who are at once heroic and selfish, who advocate for justice and then cross lines in its pursuit. He tackles the notion of whether the ends justify the means and, more important to the drama, how the conclusion drawn from that conundrum differentiates people and tears apart relationships of all sorts.

Perhaps Ridley's most impressive achievement is the continued depth of the series (he wrote five of the six episodes and directed three of them as well) as it expands. He explores the identities of Jas as a Pakistani immigrant and Marcus as a British citizen, but also whether Dhari is just a local thug or the next Malcolm X; whether Jas and Marcus are interested in the fate of poor blacks in London or just some bigger ideal of black empowerment; where Leroy (Brandon Scott) fits in as an American member of the Black Panther party who fled to London after he killed a cop in a race riot; how Fallon (Denise Gough) fits as the white Irish girlfriend of a British black man who gets martyred; and how Chief Inspector Pence (Rory Kinnear), the South African-born leader of the task force (the "black power desk" at Scotland Yard) aimed at reining in blacks, squares his overt racism with the fact he has his own, out-of-wedlock black son and struggles to understand how his white police partner Cullen (Daniel Mays) admits that, being Irish, he understands feeling "that the whole system is rigged against you."

Ridley's persistence in making connections that muddy philosophies is what gives the show its gravitas. Over the course of all six episodes, the effort that goes into this complicated tapestry is impressive to witness. Guerrilla (Showtime lists it as "season one" and perhaps there could be more, but it feels like a complete miniseries) allows Ridley to keep a lot of plates spinning. Jas never allows Marcus or Kent to place value on her beauty at the expense of her talent or contribution to the cause. In one scene she says to Marcus: "Partners? Being partners doesn't mean disappearing into you. I'm not here to be the girlfriend or the sidekick. I'm my own agent."

Pinto truly gets a defining role here and runs with it: She's convincingly fierce as she becomes more radicalized, but her evolution is believable at every turn, less superhero than determined activist. Jas also is a feminist who puts that below the greater political cause but never hides it enough to be taken advantage of by a man. As for Ceesay, as Marcus, it's hard to overstate just how superb he is. None of the characters have tried to work within the system quite like Marcus; he's likeable and relatable but conflicted as he's pulled in a direction he's not entirely comfortable with (he's an English teacher). His role in the resistance is a dogged insistence to define it while others around him just want to create upheaval. In the pursuit of what? For what means? What are the things we stand for? Marcus, more tender-hearted and perhaps ill-suited for his role, is a man swept along by events he tries desperately to rationalize, and Ceesay brilliantly captures his emotional state and interior conflicts. He is quietly mesmerizing in every scene.

Elsewhere, Ridley employs the British playwright, actress and director Zawe Ashton as Omega, a different kind of black powerbroker in London, who sees the extremes of radicalized acts as a dead end and enlists Kent to take on a leadership role (in part because she sees Jas as not being one of them). In another scene, Cullen, the Irish cop, talks about not being accepted by the English even though he's white and how that affects his world view: "If we've got to step over some blacks and Pakis, is that so bad? Push down to rise up."

Into all of this internecine drama, Ridley almost inadvertently finds room for some slight humor. There are so many people pursuing different things in the radical underground that when they come together (at safe havens or in the hustle for monetary support), the clash of interests produce fleeting moments of comedy tucked into the quickened drama (like Marcus dismissing a radical Canadian from Quebec because "she's fighting to speak French" instead of, say, start a revolution; that it makes that point while also rendering her story riveting is further proof of exactly how strong Guerrilla is).

To beat the same Peak TV drum yet again: Viewers have a lot of excellent options — particularly right at this very moment. But don't overlook Showtime's true gem in Guerrilla.

Cast: Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay, Idris Elba, Nathaniel Martello-White, Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton, Wunmi Mosaku
Writer-creator: John Ridley
Directors: John Ridley, Sam Miller

Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine