It's been more than a year since we've had a "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation worth going out of our way to see. But the wait ends tonight with the arrival of "Reckless," a six-hour miniseries that's part domestic drama, part romantic comedy and all kinds of steamy, smart, sophisticated fun.
"Reckless" touches all the bases of contemporary adult drama and then some: marriage, mid-life angst, balancing personal and professional lives, social class differences, boomers caring for aging parents, doctors in love, older-woman-younger-man relationships and older-man-younger-woman trysts as it explores the classic theme of what fools we mortals be, especially when we're in heat.
The heat-seeking missile here that utterly disrupts life and death at St. Gregory's Hospital in Manchester is Dr. Owen Springer (Robson Green), a handsome, 30ish surgeon who has risen from working-class roots to a top position at one of London's best teaching hospitals.
Springer leaves his prestigious post and returns to Manchester to care for his ailing father (David Bradley), which is where the real action begins. He meets an older woman -- the beautiful, 50ish Anna Fairley (Francesca Annis), a management consultant who runs her own company -- and is utterly smitten.
And "smitten" is the only word to describe her effect on him, believe me. I stop just short of calling him a lovesick swain. That's how strong his love is.
Here's Springer telling Anna how he feels: "I swear to God, I've never felt like this about anyone in my life, Anna. When I saw you in the car this morning I nearly died. I couldn't breathe, I started sweating, my fingers went numb. "
Only one little problem with Springer's great love for Anna: She's happily married to Dr. Richard Crane (Michael Kitchen), who happens to be Springer's new boss. Even though St. Gregory's is a big step down from the London hospital where Springer was, and he has to take a lower-level position to boot, Springer desperately needs the job to stay in Manchester and care for his father.
And just in case that's not enough complication for you, Crane is having an affair with a super-efficient, up-from-the-working-class hospital administrator (Daniela Nardini), who just might be pregnant. In her own way, Vivien Reed is also a force to be reckoned with.
All of which might sound more like the stuff of soap opera than drama, but not in the hands of screenwriter Paul Abbott, who created the original "Cracker" with Robbie Coltrane for English television. Abbott takes the stuff of Georgian drawing-room drama and gives it the modern-day, big-city blues -- revisiting the scenes of endless collisions between passion and social standing, love and an orderly existence. In his own way, Abbott is as fine a television screenwriter as the late Dennis Potter ("The Singing Detective").
The minor movements of the symphony that is "Reckless" are exquisite. Anna's mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's, is in St. Gregory's. Some screenwriters might use this as just a further complication in the romantic comedy.
But Abbott includes long, lyrical scenes between Anna and her mother in which Anna is again the child instead of the adult. Then, just when you start to trust in that relationship, Abbott has the mother slip gears mentally again and be of absolutely no use to Anna in her time of need.
There are no simple, "Hallmark Hall of Fame" answers in this drama. Instead, it poses profound, rewarding questions about knowing our pasts and trying to invent better futures.
Great performances? "Reckless" is wall-to-wall with them. Kitchen, who seems to have become the very embodiment of upper-class England to millions of American viewers in such productions as "To Play the King," is once again brilliant. Watching him crumble into a bundle of nervous tics when Anna discovers his philandering is a delight. And, just when you thought he could not be more addled, Vivien goes to work on him.
As for Robson and Annis, I guarantee you will not only feel the heat but also come to care about both of them across all lines of gender and class. Personally, I'd trade you 10 Jane "Prime Suspect" Tennisons for one Anna Fairley, and at the start of "Reckless," there weren't two things I liked about her.
Fans of "Cracker" will remember the wrenching final scene of that series. Set in a sterile hospital lobby late at night, Fitz and his wife decide to break up for good after they admit that neither would be willing to die for the other.
That's the dark writing of Paul Abbott exploring honesty, loneliness and the human heart.
"Reckless" is Abbott listening to the better angels of love, showing us what might happen if we allow ourselves to go with that flow of feelings so intense we fear it will kill us.
Where: MPT (channels 22 and 67)
When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. today, Jan. 25 and Feb. 1
Pub Date: 1/18/98