J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ becomes a downbeat HBO miniseries

Not Dumbledore: Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie in The Casual Vacancy.

Two stars

The Casual Vacancy April 29-30, 8 p.m., HBO.

After author J.K. Rowling finished writing the Harry Potter books, she made a major change with The Casual Vacancy, a sprawling, satirical social-realist novel about a local election in a small British town. Thanks to Rowling’s popularity, it was a huge bestseller and has now been made into a three-part miniseries by HBO and the BBC. But with its dour subject matter and shapeless plotting, Vacancy would be unremarkable without Rowling’s name behind it. She gets top billing in the miniseries version, above the actors, the screenwriter and the director, but anyone who tunes in thanks to a residual love for Harry Potter might be thrown by the profanity, sex, drug use and general human misery on display.

There’s nothing fantastical about the quaint but grim small town of Pagford, where a charming village exists side by side with a drug-ridden housing project. The local parish council is weighing whether to demolish the dilapidated community center (which, among other things, serves as a food bank and methadone clinic) and replace it with a new health spa meant to draw in tourists. The greedy head of the council (played by Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon) has no sympathy for addicts and other welfare cases, but a crusading lawyer (Rory Kinnear) makes a rousing argument for compassion and community.

Then he drops dead, leaving his seat on the council (and the deciding vote) up for grabs. As various community members vie for the open seat, dark secrets surface, relationships crumble, and the nasty underbelly of the seemingly idyllic town is revealed, if only briefly. Vacancy dabbles in political satire, especially via Gambon’s buffoonish character and his equally insensitive wife, but it’s far too dreary to be a comedy, and its social commentary is often blunt and ineffective. Worse, the narrative has no momentum, spending three hours on the tedious minutiae of relationships among more than a dozen characters, most of whom are barely fleshed out.

The election issue is resolved with half an hour left in the final episode, and from there things really fall apart, as deaths and betrayals bring the story to a heavy-handed, melodramatic conclusion that fails to resonate with what’s come before. Newcomer Abigail Lawrie gives the series’ best performance as a troubled teen who ends up as the de facto main character, but by the end, she’s just more fodder for unearned tragedy. Harry and his friends never had to deal with such poor treatment.

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