All episodes were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
HBO’s adaptation of The Casual Vacancy would be far less of an event were it not for the source material’s world-renowned author: J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. Rowling wrote The Casual Vacancy, a decidedly adult tale of bourgeois apathy and class warfare set in the picturesque English village of Pagford, as her first book without wands and witchcraft. The differences are stark, from the pervasive unpleasantness of the characters to the dour, unsatisfying culmination of their stories.
Still, it’s near impossible to consider the volume without attempting to identify any sliver of shared DNA, so chew on this – The Casual Vacancy is a series built around an entire town of Muggles, all lacking the magic or morality of Rowling’s Hogwarts-approved heroes. Not all of them are as blatantly noxious as the Dursleys, but even the less detestable players in Pagford are far from pure, and watching all of them mill about, selfishly undermining one another and hiding their wicked intentions behind polite smiles, is sometimes darkly comical.
Most of the time, though, this adaptation is rather grim, and fans of the “quaint countryside” trope (displayed in everything from murder mysteries like Broadchurch to period dramas like Downton Abbey) will be in for a shock. If other series set in towns like Pagford aim to subvert the clichés of small-town life, The Casual Vacancy savagely tears them to shreds. Indeed, for all Pagford’s old shoppes and postcard-ready dwellings, the area feels more like a war-zone, with two groups of townsfolk stopping just short of coming to blows with one another over the future of their home.
Leading one side is Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), the good-hearted Parish Councilman who firmly believes that it is his duty, and the duty of his fellow townspeople, to care for their impoverished neighbors, who live in a local council estate called the Fields. As such, he’s bent on keeping the doors of a meth clinic and community center wide open. As The Casual Vacancy opens, however, Barry finds himself under siege by loathsome community pillars Howard and Shirley Mollison (Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie), who want to strengthen Pagford’s attraction to tourists by converting the clinic into a luxury spa. Barry’s passion keeeps them at bay during an election – but only just.
As it goes, Barry is dead rather early on, swiftly dispatched by an anerysm while walking through a parking lot. And before he’s in the ground, the fighting begins in earnest – who will take Barry’s seat on the council? Howard and Shirley strong-arm their simpering son Miles (Rufus Jones) into running for election, with the understanding that once he’s installed, nothing will stand in the way of the elderly couple’s scheme. At first, his appointment seems like a lock – but then, supported by his caring wife (Monica Dolan), timid asthmatic Colin Wall (Simon McBurney) announces his candidacy, kicking off an increasingly vicious race between those who want to carry on Barry’s legacy and those who’d rather bury chivalry alongside him.