Sundance TV’s original miniseries “One Child” clocks in at almost four hours long. At times the show circulates within itself; it’s impossible not to in this tense, claustrophobic and excellent drama. It features Mei Ashley (Katie Leung, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) as an adopted Chinese woman living in London. One day, she receives a call from a journalist back in China, claiming to be an intermediary for her biological mother. Mei’s brother (Sebastian So) has been framed for a murder and will be sentenced to death in three weeks under China’s oppressive communist regime. She needs Mei’s British citizenship to help (this is a not fully satisfying reason), so Mei travels to China, setting her on a race through the labyrinthine halls of government corruption.
“One Child” ’s ambition in covering vast ground in terms of political critique and psychological analysis makes up for some moments of weak dialogue and plot implausibility. The show’s rich characters deserve more. Mei’s actions, for instance, are baffling at times for a burgeoning scientist. She takes off for China without telling her parents the real reason and without any plan, blithely trusting the journalist. Her parents — a superb Elizabeth Perkins, “Weeds,” and Donald Sumpter, “Game of Thrones” — act as a surrogate for the audience, powerlessly conveying their fluctuating emotions of shock, fear and frustration via phone and Skype calls that Mei either hangs up on or refuses to answer.
But of course, blood runs thick, even for a brother she’s never met or even knew about, and the show is expertly grapples with the question of what defines family. In this way, it explains Mei’s moments of irrationality — those three weeks are tamped with unimaginable pressure that the show successfully evokes.
It does this by imbuing its story with very little sentimentalism. Mei’s reunion with her biological mother is stripped of any Hallmark glow, and there is something vaguely unnerving about the way her mother comes back into her life only to save her son. More than this, as Mei pursues various advocacy and activist channels, “One Child” unrelentingly shuttles her down countless avenues only for her to crash headlong into their dead ends.
“One Child” is a true dystopian to American viewers, recalling Welles’ “The Trial” more than the YA brand saturating the theaters. “One Child” is terrifying to watch because the enemy is an Orwellian government, sublime in its presence, spiderwebbed with potential respites that dissolve as quickly as they materialize. Even the activists and journalists are pervaded with corruption and operate under pivoting ulterior motives. This is suspense in the top-notch sense, relying on realistic jags of plot to drive its pace rather than any superimposed gimmicks. Nothing against sex and violence, but “One Child” should be noted for the unremitting tension it suspends for four episodes by the skin of its gritty, unglamorous teeth. Because of this, it makes for neither pleasant nor cathartic viewing.
“One Child” typifies the high-caliber content migrating to television. It’s skillfully paced and harrowing, composed with judicious doses of both psychodrama and political commentary. To say this show is important is an understatement. The viewer tendency with shows like “One Child,” perhaps, is to situate the critique solely in the foreign countries they are set in, but viewers would be loath to ignore the universal indictment of government corruption in “One Child” ’s narrative. When art and politics converge, it is worth examining, but when it is done as exceptionally as “One Child,” it must be examined.