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Their drama beats ours Hot stuff: Britain's "The Politician's Wife" raises admiration and envy in a critic's mind. Why can't American television produce something this good?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Politician's Wife" is one of those "Masterpiece Theatre" offerings from Britain that make you want to scream, "Why can't the American television industry make this kind of exquisite social drama for literate adults?"

Oh, we can do quality cop show drama almost as well as the British. "Homicide," "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order," in their own way, are comparable to series like "Prime Suspect," "Cracker" and "A Touch of Frost."

But "The Politician's Wife," a two-part, three-hour film that starts tonight at 9 on PBS, is more like the English equivalent of an American made-for-television movie. And I can't remember any American made-for-television movie that ever dealt with matters of gender, power, politics, sex and family as intelligently as this.

Writer Paula Milne ("Das Kinder") takes a seemingly predictable situation -- a conservative politician caught in a sex scandal -- and turns it inside-out to examine the matter from the point of view of the politician's wife. She shows what goes on behind the scenes of the politician's home when the press comes up with a Gennifer Flowers or Donna Rice and literally brings the story to his doorstep.

The wife, Flora Matlock (Juliet Stevenson), is the original salt of the earth, loyal trouper and all the rest of it. A Cambridge graduate like her husband, she seems to thrive on her husband's political career as much as he does. The daughter of a politico, she has been content to be her husband's confidante, note-taker, unofficial adviser and general dogsbody, as well as mother and father to their two children.

When her husband's philandering is exposed, she's rocked to the core. She walks carefully, as if she's lost her balance and bearings. As she reads a headline, answers the phone or sits watching her children play, her pain is palpable.

But that is only the beginning of the story -- the first 15 minutes.

A transformation subtly starts to take place in Flora when an audio cassette of her husband's phone conversations with his lover is left for her.

In an achingly brilliant scene, Flora enters her son's room late at night to borrow his Walkman, the only device she can think of on which to play the tape. She takes the Walkman off his sleeping head and then lies down in an empty bunk bed in the boy's room to listen in the darkness to her husband having phone sex with his mistress.

Perfect and painful

It is a scene of such loneliness and intimacy that you want to look away, but you absolutely cannot. It is as perfect a realization of touching bottom as I have ever seen on television.

"The Politician's Wife" is not so much about betrayal, the hypocrisy of politicians or even sex as it is about being pushed, emotionally, to the edge, girding your loins and bringing yourself back from the abyss. It's about holding on to your sanity when your self-concept is horribly shattered, and somehow managing to make it through. It's also about being portrayed as the Chump of the Week in tabloid headlines and nonetheless trying to remember the shopping list and keeping a chirpy smile on your face.

The politician, Duncan Matlock, is played by Trevor Eve. He's all chiseled profile, selfishness and the kind of thick hair politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have. He becomes the pretty boy you love to hate. His cabinet title is Minister of the Family, and his speeches on loyalty, trust and family values will make you gag.

The other woman is played by Minnie Driver ("Circle of Friends"). Her character -- a former escort girl now working as a researcher in Parliament -- is not especially well-defined, except when it comes to matters of sex. Duncan likes to be dominated in bed, and she knows how to, let's just say, dominate. Driver does manage to put her stamp on the role and suggest that her character has more than one dimension. Thanks to Driver's performance, the woman comes off as a real person -- and a brainy one at that.

But it is plain, well-educated, well-mannered, seemingly submissive Flora who's the centerpiece here.

She is tutored by her father and her husband's other political advisers on how best to put on a brave and forgiving face for the press, her husband's constituents and the other Conservative Party members. A war room is set up in her kitchen to deal with damage control, but not a word is said about the real damage to her and her marriage. It's not how things are, but rather how they look, that concerns everyone.

Ultimately, Flora uses her marginalization and her husband's interest in appearances to her distinct advantage. To say more would run the risk of spoiling some of the most delicious and absolutely satisfying turns of events that you are likely to see on television this year.

As to the question that opened this review, it's not that American television can't do this kind of intelligent adult drama. We certainly have the acting talent. Hollywood is full of great middle-aged actresses, such as Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange, who have a hard time getting work in feature films only because they are middle-aged.

Not commercial enough

It is rather that the networks won't do it. They won't do it because they make movies that are first and foremost designed to deliver viewers to advertisers. To pay the freight of network rates, advertisers demand audiences that are large, young and made up mostly of viewers who are easily persuaded by television commercials to buy the products they see advertised.

The character study of a seemingly plain, upper-middle-class woman who has been betrayed by her husband is not the sort of thing about which the Madison Avenue gang tends to get excited. Tori Spelling or Tiffany-Amber Thiessen as victim or sex object is more to advertisers' liking.

There is hope for the cable channels, such as HBO and TNT, which have started down the road of smart, adult drama with such films as "Citizen Cohn" and "Tidy Endings." They found that they can turn a profit with smaller niche audiences -- like the older, well-educated, upscale one that watches "Masterpiece Theatre" and patronizes Merchant and Ivory feature films.

But, for the most part, the best writers, directors and photographers in Hollywood are still unwilling to work at the lower-paying level of cable unless they cannot get work in feature films or big-budget network productions.

In short, our television film industry is, not surprisingly, a product of the larger culture that says bigger is better and what pleases the most is the best. Our weekly Nielsen ratings and box-office reports are what we have instead of aesthetics.

Flora Matlock is not the stuff of mass-audience fantasy in American culture. So the most our media are willing to spend on her is what it costs PBS to buy secondary rights to something that has already aired elsewhere.

The sad thing is that such British seconds are still so much more enlightened, life-affirming and lovingly produced than most of the television movies made in the United States.

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