With smuggling, story lines just keep on coming
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — In a world of haves and have-nots, the smuggler will always have a role. That is the premise of USA Network's new three-part miniseries, "Traffic," loosely based on the British series and the feature film released in 2000 by the same title. Though the main contraband this time is not drugs, the series expands on the premise of the earlier versions, namely, that smuggling is among the world's oldest cultural exchanges.
"What is smuggled in the world usually reflects on what's happening in the world," says Stephen Hopkins, the new series' executive producer.
The miniseries, running three consecutive nights beginning Monday, follows ancient trade routes across vast Asian wilderness. "In the old days, these routes were used to smuggle things like tulips, which were illegal at the time, and then drugs and nowadays weapons," says Hopkins. And human beings, he adds. "Many people in the world will die if they stay where they live, so those people now will be smuggled."
Like its predecessors, the miniseries uses the technique of interwoven stories, focusing on the human weaknesses that produce the illegal trade and the toll that trade exacts of people touched by it. All three versions share the same dark view that civilization has not figured out how to escape the horrors of illicit trade.
This interweaving "is a template for telling a story about how the world gets affected by whatever may be smuggled around the world, whether it's drugs or weapons or human beings," says Hopkins, who, along with some of his "Traffic" colleagues, spoke to reporters at a winter press tour for television critics. "And then, it's about human nature," he adds, "because people can talk themselves into doing morally reprehensible things if they convince themselves that the money is there for them."
The story follows three sets of protagonists: a DEA agent based in Afghanistan (Elias Koteas), whose wife (Mary McCormack) is left to handle the family's move from Los Angeles to Seattle, not to mention a rebellious teenage son; an ambitious business school grad (Balthazar Getty), eager to rise above his father's modest achievements as a garment salesman; and an immigrant taxi driver (Cliff Curtis), whose wife and child are caught up in a scheme to smuggle them into the United States.
The expanded format allows the characters to develop more fully, something that appealed to the actors.
"My character's story is about trying to find a better life for himself, his child, and his wife," says Curtis. "I'm playing an illegal immigrant, a refugee of sorts.... That wasn't explored in the  film, and I think it's a really important theme. As the world gets smaller, what are you going to do about immigrants? It's a very deep issue, especially for America as a nation of immigrants. How do you close the border and how do you stop them from coming?"
Multigenerational conflicts fuel the rise and fall of the young MBA. "He's just a young, ambitious kid who wanted to be anything other than his father," says Getty. "The character is driven to succeed and to have the right car and the right outfit and the right house," says the actor whose family name is, of course, synonymous with one of the world's great fortunes. "For me," he says, "it was about the character - the struggle between different sorts of materialism.... I saw him as a good person, definitely too ambitious, but a good person."
The MBA is trying to save his father's business after his dad's untimely death. But, as it turns out, his father was involved in a lucrative smuggling business - allowing his company's shipping containers to be used to transport illegal immigrants into the US.
"Balthazar's character is so interesting because he starts off trying to do the right thing," says producer Hopkins. "He gets threatened and cajoled as his life is threatened and forced into a situation where he has to work with a criminal."
Of the three story lines, this is the one that comes closest to the lives of everyday Americans, says Hopkins. "There's not many of us who have DEA agents or refugees in our family, but I think a lot of us have been tempted to do dumb things for cash in our lives."
The series has a dark take on human nature, its producers acknowledge. "Human beings have dark and bright sides to them," says Hopkins. "Some people will take stands against doing what they know is wrong, and some people will talk themselves into doing stuff and justify it."
Will "Traffic" ultimately launch a new weekly TV series? Well, these particular stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But the fundamental forces that drive traffic of all sorts are unchanged. "That," Hopkins adds, "is probably why this will never stop."