Guerrilla: A slow beginning that sets up an intriguing series

Mike P Williams

Sky Atlantic and Showtime’s talked-about series Guerrilla debuted this week, leaving room for plenty of debate and speculation over how the season pans out and how it addresses issues of race.

Despite episode 1 airing on the channel, the entire series is already available on Sky Box Sets to binge at your convenience. That said, this is my initial impressions on the first episode; offering audiences an interesting if not particularly thrilling hour of television to engage with.

Set during the social unrest of 1971’s civil rights movement in London, Guerrilla introduces us to our leads Marcus (Babou Ceesay), Jas (Freida Pinto), and Kent (Idris Elba), during a time of enormous division and heightened institutionalised racism. Unfortunately, we never once get close to beginning to understand what these individuals are about just yet – at first it focuses on setting tone and place.

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Set against the Richard Nixon era administration and during the prominence of the UK’s aggressive National Front, the catalyst for the emergence of the British Black Panthers is the direct threat of the government’s tightening immigration policies.

Whilst the first hour introduces us to our characters and sets the scene, it’s evident that the entirety of episode 1 is a preface to the actual story ahead. We’re served up a contextual background that plays out right until the end of the episode which is the point where events really begin.

It’s unfair to suggest this framework is an uneventful backdrop to the real story – after all, every narrative needs its share of exposition, and this certainly requires context for anyone unfamiliar with the real-life, historic events.

The show’s come under fire from some, claiming it isn’t representative of black women, especially with Pinto as its prominent lead. Despite criticism that it erases this group, writer-director John Ridley insists it doesn’t. While it’s true that black and Asian people worked together in the fight against oppression, it’s too early to judge the series as a whole on how it handles black women. That said, there isn’t any leading black women in episode 1 – the one that does feature is working with the police to take down the civil rights movement.

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In terms of spectacle, its debut does boast two or three big moments that exacerbate the struggle of minorities living in Britain and fuel the unfolding narrative. Prevalent racism and violent discrimination bleeds between society, the media, and police. Importantly, we learn of senior figures, like Rory Kinnear’s DCI Pence, who are intent on destroying the resistance to stabilise the power of white governance.

The polish of the production is adequate but doesn’t elevate to anything like Game of Thrones, Westworld, or The Night Of standards – it’s not even in the same league. Make no mistake: this is no HBO level production. Instead, we’ve been given a competently produced low-key British drama that has its highs but also its share of dips. Some convenient plotting and unconvincing acting can sometimes be ignored because the overarching story depicts some shocking scenes of prejudice and is an important part of history worth telling.

Its central themes of racial division, oppression, and immigration laws forge Guerrilla into a gruelling debut that promises to expand dramatically from episode two. Having not watched beyond the first, it’s impossible to say where it leads and how consistent the quality is. What is evident is its potential: as you’ll see from the episode’s climax, it sets up a show that looks like it could take off after a slow start.

Sadly, Guerrilla doesn’t instantly grab you, nor does it demand you immediately watch the rest of the series like Breaking Bad or House of Cards insist. And that’s a problem when TV needs viewers to stay interested and tuning in. However, with the series complete, already available, and not hinging on weekly popularity or numbers, its success will instead contribute to whether we see any more after the dust settles on this miniseries.

What did you think of Guerrilla? Have you seen the whole series? Share your thoughts below…

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