“I would love to, but I don’t have the time.” Judging by that all-too-common refrain, time is the one commodity everyone wished they had more of.
Unless, of course, you’re in prison. Then time is all you have, the elastic perception of it stretching for eons as you try to stay sane and stay alive, really putting emphasis on the “serving” part of serving time.
Starring the powerhouse pair of Sean Bean and Stephen Graham and written by Jimmy McGovern, Time is a probing three-episode British miniseries set in a prison in northern England. Gritty, nuanced and understated, it’s a series that encapsulates show and not tell.
It may be harrowing at times, it may even be hard to watch, but Time trades in flashy filmmaking techniques for an immersive storytelling experience that varies between dramatic moments and mundane, banal scenes.
It adds up to a cohesive whole, a TV show that captures the lives of those within an imperfect system of justice, where there is brutality but also decency.
We meet Mark Cobden (Bean) as he’s transferred to prison to start his four-year sentence for killing a man while drink-driving. On the outside, Mark was a schoolteacher and his soft hands are immediately commented on.
The fact everyone he meets on that first day asks if it’s his first time in prison condemns the cycle of recidivism that inmates are trapped in. Another incident in which one of Mark’s cellmates partake in illegal drugs and comments that it’s something he never did before incarceration is equally damning.
Guilt-ridden for his crime, Mark is haunted by images of his victim but finds purpose in aiding the prison chaplain Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran).
A lesser series would’ve charted out Mark’s redemptive arc, but Time does the harder work of asking the question if atonement is even possible. That a series centred on crime and punishment dives deep into that thorny idea is another indicator of its thoughtfulness.
Graham’s character is Eric, a senior prison officer. But he’s not the other side of the equation because in many ways, he’s on the same side. Eric is good at his job. He enforces the rules but he’s fair, and he certainly doesn’t have the sadistic streak that so many archetypal TV officers do.
Eric jeopardises his career and his principles when an inmate approaches him with an impossible proposition. This isn’t set up as a great moral dilemma but rather a very human choice.
Time doesn’t judge the people within the system, whether they’re on the inmate side or the staff side. There are supporting characters including other inmates played by Jack McMullen, Aneurin Barnard and Kevin Harvey.
They don’t have a lot of screentime but they’re all distinct. It’s the sort of deft world-building and nimble writing that’s comparable to The Wire’s David Simon.
Time presents these characters and their choices as almost ordinary. That’s the power of this extraordinary series, to challenge us about our own choices, about how we spend our time.
The first episode of Time is streaming on Foxtel Now* and Fetch with new episodes broadcast on BBC First on Sundays at 8.30pm
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*Foxtel is majority owned by News Corp, publisher of news.com.au
Originally published as Extraordinary TV show’s great power