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'Traffic' is a miniseries worth the stop

Sunday, January 25, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD - Aside from occasional big-ticket events on HBO ("Band of Brothers," "From the Earth to the Moon"), the state of the TV miniseries has been a sorry one since the genre's heyday in the late '70s and throughout the '80s. So it's a great pleasure to report that USA Network's "Traffic" is a stellar achievement, a miniseries that would be at home right alongside such '80s epics as "North and South" and "The Thorn Birds."

TV Review
"Traffic"
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Wednesday on USA Network.
Starring: Elias Koteas, Mary McCormack

Simply put, "Traffic" is the best non-HBO miniseries to come on TV in years.

"Traffic" is inspired by the Academy Award-winning 2000 film of the same name (which itself was based on a British miniseries), but the connection is minimal. The characters and story are completely different from the film, but the way the plots weave together and the subject matter - drug trafficking and the war on drugs - are similar.

"Traffic" begins with three disparate stories that ultimately intertwine. Drug Enforcement Agency field agent Mike McKay (Elias Koteas) is working in Afghanistan where he may or may not be forsaking his allegiance to join the drug trade. Back in America, his wife Carole (Mary McCormack) and teenage son Tyler (Justin Chatwin) try to adapt to life in Seattle, their new home.

Ben Edmonds (Balthazar Getty), an ambitious young Seattle businessman, sees his dream real estate investment evaoparte, which sends him to work for his father, who's actually involved with a Chinese gang, led by Ronny Cho (Nelson Lee).

Adam Kadyrov (Cliff Curtis), an Eastern European immigrant and Seattle cabbie, paid to smuggle his wife and daughter into the United States in hopes of starting a better life. But something goes horribly wrong and Adam sets out to learn the cause of his personal tragedy.

In time, the three stories co-mingle as "Traffic" depicts the dangers of both the drug culture and seemingly futile attempts to combat drugs. The connection between drugs and terrorism is also explored, something that wasn't part of the "Traffic" movie.

Written by Ron Hutchinson ("Dead Man Out," "The Josephine Baker Story"), "Traffic" is instantly engrossing with well-drawn characters. The miniseries jumps from story-to-story frequently, but it's rarely confusing. With a pulse-pounding score by Jeff Rona, "Traffic" is executive produced by Stephen Hopkins, who also directed the miniseries' first night. Hopkins directed the pilot episode of "24" and "Traffic" has a similar visual feel, utilizing hand-held camera work and zooms.

Given the subject matter, occasional violence and some mild gore is expected, but it's not overwhelmingly graphic.

Director Hopkins said a short-run series was fitting for this particular project.

"The miniseries format lends itself much more to these strong ideas of telling a multitude of different character stories and how they all bisect," Hopkins said at a press conference here earlier this month. "You get much more of a chance spending time with each character, whether they be thought of as good or evil characters, and understand them."

But revisiting the "Traffic" format gave some of the actors pause. For Curtis, it was the opportunity to play an illegal immigrant that made his role appealing.

"That was a theme that wasn't explored in the [feature] film," he said. "It's a really important theme. As the world gets smaller, what are you going to do about immigrants? It's a very deep issue, especially for America, as a nation made of immigrants. And how do you close the borders and how do you stop them from coming in?"

USA Network executive Jeff Wachtel said "Traffic" was developed as a limited event series, but the format could be recycled.

"These specific characters' stories do reach a resolution. And if it's incredibly successful, we might take the 'Traffic' label, the extraordinary narrative storytelling device of it, and do it with a completely new story, completely new theme," Wachtel said. "But this particular story reaches its conclusion."


Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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