Stephen Gaghan’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic, the film (2000), stuck so closely to the template set by Traffik, the British miniseries (1989), that Gaghan might just as easily have been awarded a ticket for tailgating. And yet, it’s the parts Gaghan left out that have gained relevance and force in the intervening years. As a result, Traffik-the-miniseries continues to resonate while Traffic-the-film grows shallower with repeated viewings: Today, its indictment of American drug policy registers as easy and undercooked, and its plotlines—which culminate with the daughter of America’s drug czar selling her prep-schooled self to an inner-city crack dealer—seem obvious and exploitative. Traffik succeeded, in part, because it cut against the grain of conventional thinking and presented the drug trade from a variety of perspectives, including that of poor Pakistani opium farmers. In ridding himself of such subplots and shifting the emphasis toward policing and policy issues, Gaghan—who got his start writing for NYPD Blue and The Practice—moved his film’s emotional center closer to the centers of power and smoothed over subtleties that made the original worth watching. As David Edelstein noted, the result, which might have been a big-screen masterpiece, ended up looking an awful lot like “a good TV show.”This week, cable television’s USA Network revisits Traffik and Traffic once more, in a miniseries that is ostensibly based on both but is really more of an attempt to spin the brand into a franchise. Unlike Gaghan’s adaptation, the USA series starts from scratch, updating and expanding the definition of “traffic” to include illegal immigrants and international terrorism. And so, over the course of three nights (starting tonight, 9 ET), bankrupt businessman Ben Edmonds (played by Balthazar Getty) will sell his soul to Chinese-American mob boss Ronny Cho (Nelson Lee), DEA agent Mike McKay (Elias Koteas) will go AWOL with $10 million in Afghani heroin, Chechen cab driver Adam Kadyrov’s (Cliff Curtis) efforts to smuggle his family into the United States will go terribly awry, and an al-Qaida cell will ship two containers of smallpox onto American soil.
At first glance, USA’s Traffic looks and feels like its predecessors. Like them, it cycles among multiple story lines and presents characters living on the edge, or just outside, of the law. But aside from a few visual echoes—crowded Middle Eastern markets, young girls passed out in shooting galleries, red jackets passed down from characters in the British Traffik—the series makes little reference to what’s come before. Here, the overlapping plot lines and underlying conspiracies combine with up-to-the minute plays on post-9/11 paranoia, making the series seem like a sequence of 24 outtakes. (As it happens, the series was produced and partly directed by veteran 24 director Stephen Hopkins.)
Which is also to say that, while the new series isn’t Angels in America, neither is it entirely without merit. It, too, is capably acted and competently shot, and its main conceit—that proceeds from the global drug trade serve as liquid capital for global villains—strikes you as less far-fetched than it might have three or four years ago. Taken by itself, and with the general state of the American miniseries in mind, USA could have done worse.
Of course, the new series isn’t meant to be taken by itself—like any franchise, its reception depends, in part, on our conception of the original and can’t help but alter our sense of its antecedents. And it’s here that USA’s series hits a snag. Traffik struck a chord by insisting that the “war on drugs” was an ill-informed attempt to turn a grave public-health issue into a can-do law-enforcement problem. Traffic had an identical agenda, but having rid himself of Traffik’s conflicted opium grower, Fazal—the Pakistani actor Jamal Shah, who gave a remarkably sympathetic performance—and written in a subplot about a Mexican cop (a somewhat less-nuanced Benicio Del Toro), Gaghan tilted the film’s center of gravity back toward law-enforcement and against itself.
USA’s Traffic dispenses with nuance entirely. It, too, has a character named Fazal, but this Fazal is an unambiguously amoral Taliban killer. It, too, rails against the war on drugs:
In case you haven’t noticed, we lost. We lost long before we dropped the first bomb on the Taliban. It’s shovelin’ water out there. … There’s more heroin in circulation here than there ever was. … I don’t have to tell you what a sick joke the whole thing is, do I?
But the case is made by a corrupt DEA agent who’s just been caught betraying his country. It, too, leaves us with its plot strands untied, but the open endings seem intended to encourage follow-up episodes rather than follow-through thought on the part of viewers.
In the end, we’re left with the same ideas Traffik set out to overturn: That the drug epidemic should be viewed in terms of villains rather than victims, and that the heroic effort of a few good cops is all we need to save the West from dark-skinned dope peddlers. In that sense, this week’s installment of the Traffic trilogy signals a regression not only from the truth, but from the originals’ own, excellent ambitions.