The casual observer of The Casual Vacancy may be forgiven for mistaking the genre of this HBO miniseries. Spying actress Julia McKenzie (a.k.a. Miss Marple) bustling about a lovely English village of yellow stone buildings surrounded by green fields, the viewer may think, "Ooh, a nice cozy." Dark and awkward hybrid would be a more accurate description.
The three-part series is based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, the book for adults she published in 2012, well after Harry Potter and his chums had graduated Hogwarts. A lushly staged and neatly performed melodrama played out in a small community bitterly divided along class lines, the series unsuccessfully pairs social satire with earnest morals. It's a fault that, to judge from the mixed reviews Rowling received for the novel, can be traced right back to the source material.
In the pretty town of Pagford, local lawyer and municipal councillor Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) is fighting to save the Sweetlove community centre, a legacy from a Victorian worthy whose snotty descendants want to close it down and sell it to the developer of a spa. The centre, established to serve the people on the nearby housing estate, is a refuge for Fairbrother's teenage nephew Andrew Price (Joe Hurst), who is terrorized by his abusive father, and for his schoolmate Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), whose junkie of a mother also attends her group therapy there.
Fairbrother's allies in his fight include the harassed high school counsellor Tess Wall (Monica Dolan) and the sharp-tongued local doctor Parminder Jawanda (Lolita Chakrabarti), who want to preserve the venue for their youth clubs and methadone clinics. This is precisely why the determined mayor, Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), who runs a gourmet delicatessen in the town square, wants to close it down with the help of his amusingly manipulative wife, Shirley – that's McKenzie, playing the nastiest piece of work in the show.
When Fairbrother drops dead from an aneurysm, there is a "casual vacancy" on the council. Tess's anxious school-teacher husband, Colin (Simon McBurney), steps unhappily into the fray to stop the Mollison candidate, their equally reluctant and hen-pecked son, Miles (Rufus Jones). Meanwhile, Fairbrother's abusive and thieving half-brother, Simon Price (Richard Glover), decides he might as well run on the family connection.
There's strong ensemble work here from a cast of veteran British talents, and the complacent and snobby Mollison faction is neatly skewered. The liberal do-gooders are treated more gently, portrayed as bumbling but well intentioned. In that regard, Chakrabarti's Parminder is the most interesting character among them because she's a self-righteous, judgmental and annoying figure – whose heart is in the right place. Too bad writer Sarah Phelps, who adapted the novel into a screenplay, and director Jonny Campbell pass so quickly over her comeuppance.
There are some moments of real truth in these performances, as Dolan as Tess and Marie Critchley, playing wife to the nasty Simon and mother to the abused Andrew, skillfully depict the desperation of middle-aged women trying to hold their families together as their husbands fall apart. Simon's viciousness is also well observed by Glover, and Brian Vernel is painfully accurate as the Walls' sex-obsessed teenage son, Stuart. Meanwhile, the black comedy surrounding the Mollisons' manipulations occasionally achieves a Sopranos-like note in its amorality.
The problem, however, as the decent Krystal struggles to look after her baby brother when her mother relapses, is that The Casual Vacancy is not content to satirize the grasping and befuddled middle classes. It also wants to send an enlightened message about society's responsibility toward those stuck on the housing estate, and Campbell can't find any way the dark comedy would gel with this more preachy instinct.
The adults in this place are either venal or ineffective, but, with the possible exception of the amusingly loathsome Stuart, the kids are all right. Indeed there is something rather familiar about this world in which realistically portrayed teenagers struggle against caricatures of adults. For all the references to drugs, drink and sex, we seem to have found ourselves back in Potterland, where the mix of satirical figures and simple morals worked rather well – as it often does in children's books. Trouble is, director Campbell is no Dumbledore, and this time there's no magic to rescue us from a bumpy ride.
The Casual Vacancy airs Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. (ET) on HBO Canada. Check local listings.