'The State': TV Review

If you're thinking of joining ISIS, this is a cautionary tale.
9/18/2017

Not to be confused with the sketch comedy series, National Geographic's two-night look at young Brits joining ISIS is well-researched but dramatically clumsy.

Researcher Ahmed Peerbux's name has unusual prominence in the opening credits for National Geographic's miniseries The State, written and directed by acclaimed Emmy nominee Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall). It's not inappropriate placement because, if nothing else, the two-night, four-hour scripted thriller feels like a well-researched primer on the vernacular, beliefs, rituals and methodology of ISIS.

Unfortunately, The State is also four hours of turgid and predictable drama, with respectable performances from the cast of relative unknowns barely covering for the thinnest of characterizations and the flimsiest of narratives. I'll wholly grant that the program is frequently interesting and informative, but it's nearly as often laughably clunky.

The State is the story of four Brits who leave their homeland and sneak into Syria to become part of the Islamic State. There's a guy whose brother already martyred himself to the cause (Sam Otto), his best friend (Ryan McKen), a doctor (Only Uhiara) with noble aspirations and a young son, and a teenager (Shavani Cameron), whose reasons for coming are close to irrelevant. We're supposed to think these four are relatable because they have a hard time giving up their cellphones and they sometimes quote Drake, but they're scarcely given names. I don't mind the choice to join these characters without giving them obligatory backstories and just to thrust viewers into this extreme life choice they made. The problem comes when a lack of backstory bleeds into a lack of organic character reactions and you have four characters who have to be constantly oblivious about the world they're entering just to move the story along. 

The first episode treats the characters' arrival like every high school or college movie ever — think PCU meets Sleeper Cell or Harry Potter and the Chamber of ISIS. The two male characters and two female characters are, in parallel editing, brought to their dorms, shown the different facilities and giving basic orientation life in ISIS. It's not quite a lunchroom walk-through with, "That's where the AV jihadis sit and that's where the drama club jihadis sit and don't go over there, because nobody likes the goth jihadis," but it's really close.

Again, though, the contrasts aren't uninteresting. The men are basically in a frat house, where they learn about guns and explosive belts and afterlife promises of virgins and at night they have rowdy fights in the pool. The women are basically in a sorority in which they're instructed about modesty and the importance of finding a husband and then they cook and have laughter-filled dinners. The groups are interestingly diverse and, if only The State had any way or interest in explaining how, other than online chatrooms, ISIS is able to woo such disparate individuals, that might be fascinating.

Through subtitles, we're taught a certain amount of basic vocabulary like "kunyah" (the nicknames that contribute to us never figuring out what to call anybody), "hijrah" (the migration they're all on) and "shahid" (martyrdom). The men are taught about the prophesies that ISIS is following in its battles and the women are taught why none of what they're taught is relevant because their job is to make babies. Would that there were a way to convey some or any of this information without it just being part of long tour guide speeches or being shouted at recruits during training montages.

Things finally get going in the second hour, going in formulaic ways, because as we've learned from The Skulls and The Chocolate War and Drumline, joining the cool club at your high school or university always has several beats where you feel empowered and thrilled, but then you see a jihadi in a ridiculous fake beard cutting somebody's head off and then you're like, "Wait, maybe I should have researched line-drumming more seriously" and then you decide, "OK, no big deal here, I just want to quit," but nobody just quits line-drumming and it becomes a dark cautionary tale in which every time a new character is introduced, you can tell how they'll be used within five minutes.

Key difference: A dark cautionary tale about the broken hearts and mass torture that's systemic in the world of competitive line-drumming is perhaps a valuable service. A dark cautionary tale about how ISIS represses women and turns men into driven machines who misinterpret scripture and think nothing of self-sacrifice and don't take kindly to you using your trackable cellphone in the middle of a gunfight is less revelatory. There's also of questionable likelihood of reaching potential jihadis on NatGeo (the miniseries aired on Channel 4 in the U.K.), which doesn't mean a show with this message shouldn't be made, but there's a large gap between being simply pragmatic and being pragmatic with nuance, and The State becomes less nuanced every step of the way, despite the efforts of the cast.

Uhiara has a fierce intelligence that comes through even when a hijab has her acting only with her eyes. Hers was the character I felt most prepared to watch for a full series, and she has an arc with Haaz Sleiman as a secret-harboring doctor that was familiar but nicely played. Cameron's stuck with a flighty character whose individual actions never make sense, but if that's what the character was, she played it well. In a basically thankless supporting role as one of the mother superiors to the women's dorm, Hiam Abbass is so immediately compelling that any fan of Tom McCarthy's The Visitor might be truly angry at seeing her and Sleiman so underused.

The world is worth spending time in and the actors prove they could support that more developed world, but The State just doesn't tell a story worthy of those elements.

Cast: Ony Uhiara, Sam Otto, Shavani Cameron, Ryan McKen, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman.
Writer-director: Peter Kosminsky
Airs: Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)

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