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No easy answers in ‘Traffic’ miniseries

Shows the human side of drug trafficking
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Traffic” is proving to be one of the most durable entertainment formulas of our time.

In the beginning there was “Traffik,” the 1989 British TV drama which tracked the passage of heroin and the lives it ruined along the way, from Pakistan’s poppy fields to Britain’s ruling classes. Then came 2000’s “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s big-screen version, which transplanted the action to the United States and Mexico and collected four Oscars.

Now cable’s USA Network offers yet another update, a miniseries also called “Traffic,” which takes us to post-9/11 Afghanistan and Seattle and adds new levels of human wickedness — terrorism and trafficking in illegal immigrants.

Despite being a retread of a retread, it works pretty well.

Like its predecessors, the version airing in two-hour chapters Monday through Wednesday (9 p.m. ET) depends on its ability to weave together disparate lives and cultures: the lawlessness of Afghanistan and the comforts of suburban Seattle; the glistening Seattle skyline and its drug-addled derelicts; a bankrupt garment factory and a moneymaking immigrant-smuggling business; a Chechen immigrant cab driver building his own American dream; a teen romance with the girl next door.

All are tied together by drugs, the traffic in immigrants, and worse.

Story line 1: Mike McKay (Elias Koteas) is a DEA field agent. He’s working to dismantle drug operations in Afghanistan while his wife Carole (Mary McCormack) and teenage son Tyler are settling into a new home.

Story line 2: Adam Kadyrov (Cliff Curtis) plies the streets of Seattle in his battered cab. He’s anxiously waiting for his wife and daughter to arrive in a containerload of immigrants.

Story line 3: Ivy League business graduate Ben Edmonds (Balthazar Getty looking rather like Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street”) is getting desperate for the good life. But his big real estate venture and his father’s garment business are sliding into bankruptcy.

Bodies start surfacing in Puget Sound with bullet wounds in their necks — Kadyrov’s wife and child are among them. The DEA’s McKay embarks on mysterious business of his own, raising suspicions back at headquarters that he has “jumped the rails.” And Edmonds succumbs to his greed and becomes ensnared in the immigrant business.

Now, here’s the problem: how many times can you recycle the same themes (that drugs kill the innocent, that we are all vulnerable, and that the war on drugs — surprise, surprise — is futile)? These ideas felt new when “Traffik” first aired. Two versions later, they might be considered a bit stale, yet they’re still powerful enough to keep the viewer on edge.No preachingWhat made the original “Traffik” so convincing was its cast of largely unknown actors, most notably Jamal Shah in his towering portrayal of an honest Pakistani peasant whose dignity and family are disintegrating. The star-studded Soderbergh version couldn’t possibly match its authentic feel. In this regard, at least, the new “Traffic” does better.

Koteas as loose-cannon McKay and Martin Donovan as his by-the-book partner breathe crackling life into an otherwise off-the-shelf cop pairing. Getty as the young hustler, McCormack as the stressed-out DEA wife and Nelson Lee as the sinister immigrant smuggler are persuasive. Justin Chatwin and Jennifer Rae Westley make a watchable, poignant teen couple.

Although the edifice of interwoven story lines seems to weaken somewhat near the end, the two central mysteries — McKay’s one-man mission and those bodies in Puget Sound — sustain themselves to a satisfying resolution.

And be warned: The violence and corpses are graphic.

The previous versions of this story were brave enough not to preach or contrive happy endings. They left us in no doubt that all the bad things that have happened will happen again, and that the best we can hope for is to slow their advance. To its credit, the “Traffic” premiering this week also refuses to force-feed us with easy answers.