Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chancer, Series Two: Dodgy Dealings In Crumbling Casinos
Because it features megalomaniacs, it’s compared to Dallas. Because it’s set in a lavish setting whose populace is frequently adorned with jewels and tuxedos, it’s compared to Dynasty. And because it has a lovely ghost as a recurring character, it’s compared to Twin Peaks. That’s what happens when publicists are left to their own devices. Truth of the matter is Chancer, Series Two may employ those elements in weaving its tale, but it bears little resemblance to any of the aforementioned series.

Admittedly, much of Chancer, Series Two revolves around nefarious business dealings and double crosses. And none of the characters are particularly likeable. It all plays out in a chess game of rival casinos and child custody dealings, with all the characters playing pawns to the other characters’ machinations. Derek Love (a very young Clive Owen, in what many consider his breakout role) is at the center of it all—either orchestrating his own scams, or defusing the scams of his adversaries. It all gets very complicated, since adversaries in one episode often become allies in the next, only to revert to their own schemes next time around.

Something of a sequel to Series One, this series opens with Derek, who called himself “Stephen Crane” in the first series, being released from prison for fraud. He’s determined to reconcile with Joanna (Susanna Harker), who’s just given birth to a son. That doesn’t work out too well, since she dies at the end of the first episode. But since she was so important to him-- his obsession, even—she’s never from his thoughts, or his conscience, as the case may be. She makes frequent appearances throughout Series Two, as a ghost who appears to Derek in his darker moments. That would be the only connection to Twin Peaks, and even that is stretching it. She serves more as his inner voice, a beacon who guides him on the path he must take to make things right.

Nor is Chancer a take on American soaps—it’s much too convoluted for that. Sure, there are villains galore, played mostly as caricatures, at least for the first half of the series. There’s the oily, sadistic Tom Franklyn (Peter Vaughan), dearly deceased Jo’s father, who uses his grandson as a weapon in his manipulations, mostly revolving around squelching any competition to his casino. Jimmy Blake (Leslie Philips) is his reluctant foil, all English ennui and winsome platitudes. Anna (Louise Lombard) a petty thief with a “dodgy past” complicates matters between the two when it’s revealed that she’s Jimmy’s daughter, and that Tom thinks she was responsible for Jo’s death. She wasn’t, of course, but it makes for a good thread. On a lesser, and certainly less villainous, level, is Piers Garfield-Weld (Simon Shepherd), desperate to save his estate and claim his presumed son, whom is being held by Tom Franklyn. Of course, he joins forces with Derek (the aforementioned Clive Owen) to save his estate via the casino route.

Yeah, it’s a wee bit convoluted. It’s also devilishly delicious, in a veddy, veddy English fashion. The first half of the series dances delicately between the campy and the sinister, always with a deft wink and a nod to its American prime time soapy predecessors. It’s more episodic than serial, though. There’s very little straightforward in Chancer, which is fitting, given its themes of double crosses and sundry back stabbings. Clive Owen’s character acts as both an instigator and lynchpin to the various schemes to topple Tom Franklyn, while saving Piers’ estate.

Things take a much darker tone in the final three episodes, when paternity tests prove that Dex is the father of Jo’s son. (That’s not really a spoiler—it was screamingly apparent from episode one, and explained his motives.) It all comes to a crashing and unexpected end when Dex has to choose between his future with Anna and his past, and responsibilities, with the ghost of Jo.

While Series Two is abbreviated, with only seven episodes, reportedly because Owen wanted to pursue other acting interests, it doesn’t feel rushed. Writers Guy Andrews and Simon Burke impeccably pace the story with measured doses of neo-noir and dark humor throughout its 350 minutes. There’s no hint of tension on the set—only in the story itself. The actors all play their characters with melodramatic relish to the very end. The final result is a story that ends on a satisfying, if ambiguous, note.
There are no extras on the seven disc set, outside of filmographies and bios of the cast. The video transfer is adequate, but not outstanding, and it’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as it was originally shot.While it would have been nice to have a few extras, Chancer, Series Two is an outstanding example of British television in the early nineties, weaving subtle social commentary into a plot that’s always engaging.