Four episodes in, it still isn’t clear exactly what Danny Brogan did that got his house burned down and his family frightened out of their skulls. But it was something sufficiently criminal to intrigue the authorities, who offer him a deal. In exchange for services unspecified, Danny (David Morrissey), his wife Evelyn (Lucy Cohu), and their twin teens, traumatized Mark (Harry Treadaway) and sexpot Zoe (Felicity Jones), are whisked away into the British equivalent of a Witness Protection Program. The bucolic Meadowlands turns out to be a suburban penal colony of pretty homes and ugly secrets. I am not giving away anything you won’t learn in the pilot episode when I disclose that not just the Brogans but everybody in Meadowlands is in protective custody, and every inch of it is under peekaboo video surveillance.
Robert Murphy, who wrote five of eight Meadowlands episodes; veteran BBC producers Douglas Rae, Matthew Arlidge, and Caroline Levy; three different directors; and a seasoned cast of character actors in fast-forward-frantic mode—see, especially, Ralph Brown as Bernard Wintersgill, the sadistic copper, and Nina Sosanya as Samantha Campbell, the gorgeous goddess of this “Cape Wrath” security cult—all seek to keep us guessing about such slippery matters as memory, identity, and the reinvention of the self, not to mention the ethics of behavioral experiments with human populations. As we eavesdrop on marital spats, paternity squabbles, cross-dressing, sexual assault, erotic blackmail, manslaughter, and a really mean game of midnight football, we begin to wonder if the whole world is divided up between spectators and performers, voyeurs and exhibitionists, and whether anybody will ever be permitted to quit the show. Danny tries, but the road he takes leads nowhere.
Unfortunately for Meadowlands, we have been to such nowheres before, most recently in the FX series The Riches, in which Irish gypsies Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver, and their children must hide out from vengeful pursuers in the suburban-southern equivalent of a Potemkin village, under assumed identities, fighting a class war as well as their own outlaw urges. But also in Oz, the premium-cable maximum-security series that so perfectly embodied Jeremy Bentham’s all-seeing, all-knowing Panopticon. Probably the most obvious of the antecedents, 40 years ago, was Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, also set in a total-surveillance penal colony, a Welsh village dressed up as an Adriatic island, whose population consisted entirely of kidnapped intelligence agents with dirty little secrets and wardens who watched their every move on banks of television screens. It’s hard to know which is the worse nightmare: that a Peeping Tom world of satellite spyware and GPS chips, of “trap and trace” wiretaps and Carnivore Internet snooping programs, of retinal scans and nannycams, will cause us to change our behavior—or that it won’t. But Meadowlands, standing on the shoulders of some distinguished predecessors, has nothing new to report.