In dramatic storytelling one of the best devices a writer can employ is “the ticking time-bomb” -that looming deadline at which a character’s fate is set to turn.
In the UK drama Undercover, never was it more palpable for Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert), a US prisoner on death row in Louisiana. With just two hours before his execution, he awaits a Supreme Court reprieve with UK lawyer Maya Cobbina (Sophie Okonedo).
“Galbraith is the one. She will come our way,” she assures him.
But a phone call delivers bad news, superbly handled by two consummate actors avoiding cliches and floods of tears. If nothing else, Undercover by writer Peter Moffat, opens with a compelling sequence.
Rudy empowers her to rise above his inevitable end.
“Go big. Hold your dignity, walk away from me now. Go big,” he insists. It is a quest that will resonate as a bigger story unfolds.
Maya is the heart of this 6 part drama -a lawyer who has fought for human rights but loses a high-profile case. While the drama opens in the US it is rooted in the UK where Maya’s family await the nail-biting news.
Her husband Nick (Adrian Lester) and three teenage children -one of whom has a learning disability- support her work. But it is a family that will be challenged by an invitation for Maya being head-hunted as Director of Public Prosecutions. For one who has fought so many legal injustices, it isn’t a prospect that sits well with her.
Meanwhile Nick is dealing with the last days of his elderly father’s life when a face from his past surfaces with an unwelcome proposition. There are flashbacks alluding to Maya and Nick’s initial meeting, during anti-racism protests in Hackney 1996. As the story delves deeper into its past it raises questions about deception, lying and dark secrets.
Peter Moffat’s (Silk, Kavanagh QC, Criminal Justice) script directed by James Hawes tugs at the fragility of family, honour and idealism. There is a sense of longing and displacement, bitterly underscored by tension. Be warned, the first episode has so many moving parts to lay down it is complex and serves primarily as an establishing instalment.
But with a star like Sophie Okonedo in the lead role, you can’t go wrong. She can turn from vulnerability to defiant strength on a dime, with Adrian Lester matching her every step of the way. Haysbert brings added gravitas to an already-noteworthy ensemble.
Aside from its luminous performances, the key to Undercover lays in its title. What appears to be a death-row saga or another legal justice drama offers surprises and twists.
Undercover demonstrates yet again BBC Drama offers challenging, rewarding work for the discerning connoisseur.
8:30pm Sunday on BBC First.