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SundanceTV has been on a roll for a couple of years now, fielding more hits (Rectify, Top Of the Lake, The Honorable Woman, etc.) than not (original series Red Road missed the mark). It’s been an impressive run and, given the curatorial eye at Sundance, will more than likely continue.
But One Child, the two-part, nearly four-hour miniseries, which airs on Dec. 5 and 6, proves that keeping up the quality is harder than it looks. Why? Because most of the ideas in One Child – an adopted Chinese girl living in London is urged to return home to set up the release of her brother, who has been wrongfully charged in a murder – look good on paper.
Adoption, family loyalty, Chinese corruption, the dangerous work of good people inside China to instill democratic notions – these are all big picture issues that can, with the right touch, be mined for compelling drama. But both the writing and the directing fall short in One Child, leaving good actors to work with material that’s mostly not there and viewers reminded of the fact that good intentions are not always enough.
The trouble starts immediately (the first part was sent to critics), as 22-year-old Mei Ashley (Katie Leung, Harry Potter) is studying in London for her college exams. She’s contacted by a mysterious person from China who says that Mei’s birth mother has a message for her.
It’s a lot more cryptic than, “Hey, your birth mother really wants to connect with you” and is the first sign that Mei, who is studying to be an astrophysicist, isn’t as bright as she seems. The woman contacting Mei knows her real name, the province she came from and her adoption number – even an identifying mark she has on her body. Speaking for Mei’s mother, this mystery woman urges Mei to come to Guangzhou, China, because Mei’s brother – the one she didn’t know she had; the one her family kept after they got rid of her – has been wrongly accused of a crime. He’s been sentenced to death and has three weeks to live unless she comes to help.
Now, astrophysicist or no, the question that should occur to Mei at this moment is, ‘”how in the world is my flying to China going to help?” Writer Guy Hibbert (Complicit, Five Minutes of Heaven) seems content to ignore this, and it’s the first big dent in the believability – and watchability – of One Child.
When Mei finally asks that question, the answer is: “Because you are from London, you can help.”
Seriously, that’s the answer.
That is followed by lots of “Trust me, Mei” scenes. But, no, viewers will not trust this little writing trick. And Mei, an otherwise neat, studious and good daughter, decides that telling her parents (Elizabeth Perkins and Donald Sumpter of Weeds and Game of Thrones, respectively) that she’s going back to China not just to see her birth mother but to spring her brother from jail by who knows what means is not something she wants to do. This is one of many bad decisions that Mei makes – and it will make her fate less interesting to viewers, because she’s too clueless to be embraced.
But of course Mei does go to China. And her birth mother is initially not interested in her – only the fate of her brother. The shock of the situation – duh – begins to dawn on Mei and she finally tells her parents. She made a dumb decision, she says. But it won’t be her last, because when Mei finally asks the woman facilitating the trip to China what the plan is, the woman says they’ll worry about a plan later.
Oh, that’s helpful. Perhaps someone – like Mei – should have asked that earlier. Ah, but now we conveniently have Mei in China to drive the drama.
And then Mei asks her why she thought that Mei could help, the woman says, “I was hoping you might have connections.” Oh, so you found out all of these difficult to track down bits of information about me but you didn’t realize my parents are barely making enough money to live on, one being an editor and the other a writer of obscure historical dramas.
Director John Alexander doesn’t help things by indulging in “ominous” editing – certain scenes are framed to be so obviously filled with dread or red flags that nothing is spelled out naturally. It often seems like an anvil is coming down on viewers’ heads.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible that One Child turns, in its second night, into something more thrilling, sensible and fast-paced (the first night is maddening in its slowness, though that could have something to do with the implausibility of Mei traveling to China without a real notion of what she’s going to do when she gets there).
But the problem is that the first night won’t get many people to the second night, or maybe even the end of the first, because Mei continues to make horrendous decisions, later acknowledges they were bad (“I know, I’ve made a terrible mistake”), then makes them again. The big issues that One Child tries to grapple with, then, are lost along the way.
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