J.K. Rowling is obviously famous for the Harry Potter series of books, but following the completion of that series, her first new original work turned out to be the complete opposite of magic and wizards — The Casual Vacancy, a dark tale of idyllic suburban life that finds a community splintering under its own prejudices and contradictions.
Not exactly light and frothy kids fare then.
The show itself is a mix of contradictions and contrasts, the most prominent of which is the parallel between the idyllic Pagford countryside which hides a bitter darkness, seething beneath the strong rifts that sit uncomfortably between the residents of the town.
At the heart of the rift is old-fashioned class warfare, pitting the well-to-do against their more downtrodden neighbours, leading to a battle for control of the parish council, which, somehow decides all in this sleepy nook of suburban countryside, and which people are willing to battle over.
In terms of performances, the episode is held together by Rory Kinnear‘s sincere and kind Barry, the selfless lynchpin that the village needs- – that is until he dies from a brain hemorrhage, leaving his opponents, the sinister and venomous Mollinsons (played with devilish relish by Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie, who delight in Barry’s tragic death) plan to throw the parish council in their favour by transforming a centre for the underprivileged into a luxury hotel and spa.
The rest of the cast is full of British acting gold, whether it’s Keeley Hawes chewing the scenery as sultry and sympathetic boutique owner Samantha, or Emilia Fox as the epitome of upper-middle-class snobbery, wife to a man who complains about the enormous, luxurious home he lives in, because it’s expensive to heat. The teenagers too, are impressive — Abigail Lawrie shines as the sullen anti-heroine Krystal, trying to keep her family from crumbling, while relative newcomers Andrew Price (as the abused Andrew) and Ria Choony (as the quiet Sukhvinder) are pitch perfect.
The characters that embody The Casual Vacancy are all flawed and fallible, even the most heroic ones, and it’s something that rings true to real life, particularly when even a character we latch onto a protagonist might suddenly reveal a hidden darkness, much like the town of Pagford itself.
The show won’t be for fans of Rowling’s more magically-aligned work, but it’s a bitter, brutal, cynical show that looks at the dichotomy undercutting British society, as well as a healthy dose of the class war between the haves and have-nots, with the gap widening all the time. Here’s hoping the rest of the series is just as entertaining.