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A vote for Hugh Laurie in an otherwise formulaic ‘Roadkill’

Hugh Laurie as the charismatic but corrupt politician Peter Laurence in "Roadkill."BBC/The Forge/Robert Viglasky

You’re probably familiar with the double-dealing political world of “Roadkill,” a new four-part PBS “Masterpiece” series written by David Hare. Hugh Laurie stars as a crooked, utterly self-interested British politician named Peter Laurence, whose blunders and misbehavior never seem to get in the way of his popularity. He greets every PR crisis with some “honest” talk and a bit of charm on a radio show, which his constituency receives gratefully, eager to forgive him. “You can get away with anything,” he says at one point, “if you just brazen it out.” He’s in love with power and money, and he only cares about voters when they threaten to take one or both of them away.

It’s the world of so many political dramas, from “Scandal” and “Homeland” to “House of Cards,” as they conspire to remind us that “The West Wing” was impossibly idealistic. And the predictability of that world and its corruption undermine the UK-set “Roadkill” to an extent, since it follows the formula to a T. We get it, the people of the government — here, there, and everywhere — are often venal and all about using their power to preserve their power. We get it, elected officials are transactional to a fault. We get it, and I wish “Roadkill” took the idea a little further down the road, or on some kind of unexpected detour. We get it, we got it the last 10 times we saw it, and and we get it when we see it play out on the news over and over again.


The too-busy plot at times comes down to Peter, so smug and charismatic, versus a small army of (mostly) women from various parts of his personal and professional lives. In the premiere, Sunday at 9 p.m. on GBH 2, he wins a high-profile libel case against a newspaper that claimed he’d received illegal money. Everyone, including his attorney, knows that he is guilty of the crime, but instead, the reporter (Sarah Greene’s Charmian Pepper) stumbles out of the courtroom in shame, bent on vindication. She is after him, and so is one of his daughters, Lily (Millie Brady), because a tabloid has published photographs of her on a drugged-out bender. There’s another woman, a prisoner, who claims she knows of a daughter Peter unknowingly had with a former affair, not to be confused with the married Peter’s current affair, Madeleine (Sidse Babett Knudsen). And there are others after him, hoping to bring him down, but I don’t want to spoil anything here.

What “Roadkill” has to offer are a few standout performances, as Peter dodges fire from all sides. Laurie is, as is often the case, outstanding as a creep who gets by on his charm and/or brilliance. He was particularly chilling in the 2016 miniseries “The Night Manager” as a high-living billionaire arms dealer who, in his spare time, also happened to be a merchant of death. He’s less cold-blooded as Peter, but he nonetheless makes villainy into something nuanced and, at times, entertaining to behold. Peter’s need for cleanliness and order only adds to his megalomaniacal bent. On “House,” Laurie was all cruel bluster, underneath which was a good heart. Here, he’s all cool likability, underneath which is a block of ice.


I couldn’t get enough of Helen McCrory as Prime Minister Dawn Ellison, who has a very good time toying with Peter’s ambitions. She and her assistant, Julia (Olivia Vinall), make a dryly amusing team, as they out-psych the men who try to mansplain them into submission. There are a few scenes in which Peter comes to Downing Street only to be played ruthlessly by the pair, who secretly smirk at each other as they prevail. I’d watch a show about those two any time. Saskia Reeves brings a few extra notes to the worn-out role of long-suffering wife, and Pip Torrens, as a newspaper editor, is undeniable as always. The material is routine but they do their best to give it some zest.



Starring: Hugh Laurie, Helen McCrory, Sarah Greene, Iain De Caestecker, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Saskia Reeves, Millie Brady, Ophelia Lovibond, Patricia Hodge, Pip Torrens

On: GBH 2. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.