The State Within



9-11:30 p.m., Feb. 17, 18 and 24
BBC America

What would "24" be like if it were set in Washington, D.C., rather than Los Angeles and the hero was a British ambassador to the U.S. rather than a put-upon American fed? Probably a lot like "The State Within," a rip-roaring thriller of a three-night, 71⁄2-hour miniseries that pulls off the rare trick of being both massively intelligent and unbearably intense. It shows that the BBC and BBC America can ape the breakneck, quick-cut production techniques of we here in the U.S. and do it at least as well. You don't normally think of a political tale as the kind that reliably deposits your heart into your throat throughout, but this one delivers precisely that. And it has the added bonus of featuring Sharon Gless in a role she was born to play: the U.S. secretary of defense. She steals scenes like a common shoplifter in her finest work since "Cagney & Lacey."

Complex without being at all convoluted, "State Within" charts the conspiratorial fallout after a U.K.-bound commercial airliner just taking off from Washington's Dulles Airport is blown from the sky by a bomb planted, the evidence suggests, by a British suicide bomber onboard the craft. It fuels the immediate belief that America is again under attack, launching a diplomatic nightmare that brings relations between Britain and the U.S. to the brink of catastrophe. As events behind the scenes devolve into chaos, it's left to one man -- our ambassador to Britain, Sir Mark Brydon (superb work from Jason Isaacs) -- to delicately quell escalating tensions that threaten to bring down the governments of several republics.

While Sir Brydon and Defense Secretary Lynne Warner (Gless) make a public show of solidarity, behind the scenes it's quite a different matter. They clash and come to loggerheads repeatedly, in part because of the "Don't screw with me!" stance of firebrand Warner. Gless is nothing less than a revelation here, an inferno of steely resolve and volatility who could eat Chris Cagney for lunch. But she has plenty of help here in a cast that plays it just right. Directors Michael Offer and Daniel Percival skillfully engineer a crackling pace that's careful not to confuse, while the script by Percival and Lizzie Mickery deftly steers the story through a transatlantic whirlwind of thickening plot and topsy-turvy events.

There are assassinations and clandestine affairs, seamy alliances, rampant power-brokering, mixed-up priorities, shocking betrayals and a death-row inmate whose execution stands to create even greater unrest. "State Within" crackles with flash, dash and twists that keep you hopelessly riveted to the screen. Nothing falls into place the way you think it will. It's unpredictable and unsettling in that it feels all too believable. It's easy to see things unfolding pretty much like this in an anxious post-Sept. 11 world. It makes for decidedly angst-riddled times -- and some exquisite television drama.

BBC and BBC America
BBC Films
Executive producers: Jessica Pope, Kathryn Mitchell
Producer: Grainne Marmion
Supervising producer: Patrick Cassavetti
Directors: Michael Offer, Daniel Percival
Teleplay: Lizzie Mickery, Daniel Percival
Director of photography: David Perrault
Production designer: Sandra Kybartas
Art director: Armando Sgrignuoli
Costume designer: Michael Harris
Editor: David Head
Composer: Jennie Muskett
SFX supervisor: Brock Jolliffe
Sound: Dan Daniels
Casting: Kate Rhodes James, Deirdre Bowen
Sir Mark Brydon: Jason Isaacs
Lynne Warner: Sharon Gless
Nicholas Brocklehurst: Ben Daniels
Jane Lavery: Eva Birthistle
Phil Lonsdale: Neil Pearson
Luke Gardner: Lennie James
Caroline Hanley: Genevieve O'Reilly
James Sinclair: Alex Jennings
Christopher Styles: Noam Jenkins
Carlos Garcia: Ron Lea
Charles MacIntyre: Nigel Bennett
George Blake: Marnie McPhail
Mrs. Gardner: Anita Carey
Pritchard: Michael Rhoades
Sally: Emma Campbell