White Teeth

“You have picked up the wrong life in the coatroom of existence.” Who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another? This sentiment, uttered by Samad Iqbal (Om Puri) to his old war buddy Archie Jones (Philip Davis) encapsulates a theme that permeates the pilot episode of White Teeth.

The pilot of this UK drama, based on the eponymous book by Zadie Smith, is rife with moments. Like an older woman making her way along a row of apartments painting “666” on the windows. Or a man flipping a coin to decide whether to kill himself. It doesn’t matter that it’s 1974, because these oddities transcend time.

There are many characters to introduce who, in the beginning, have no clear connection. As readers of the book will know, there are many yet to come, and decades to cover. But this is one of those pilots that eschews exposition in favor of setting a tone. As relentless as the London rain, life’s dark moments wash over these characters wherever they go.

As the show opens, we’re driving through a dreary, dark neighborhood that the narrator (Archie) informs us is Willesden, “the kind of place a man goes to die.” As Archie sets up his car to asphixiate him, we flash back 3 months to meet teenager Clara (Naomie Harris). She is singing with abandon to her bedroom mirror. Her pure joy makes her instantly likeable. Described as homely in the book, she is actually quite cute save for her frumpy duds (and totally unrecognizable as Tia from Pirates of the Caribbean.)

The bleakness of the show echoes that of the book, but offers the added bonus of music, strategically used to juxtapose the action and make it that much more ridiculous. Clara’s singing moment is instantly silenced by her strictly religious mother’s entrance. Archie’s death-to-disco is interspersed with bouncy Indian music inside the meat truck that will momentarily save his life. It’s no spoiler that Archie lives — he’s the main character.

Archie’s world finally collides with Clara’s at an End-of-the-World party on New Year’s Eve. Clara, a Jehovah’s Witness has long been preparing for Doom’s Day, first by distributing warning pamplets, then by living it up having sex in public bathrooms. She has informed her ragtag band of friends of the apocalypse, and they count down to midnight dutifully. (Why does everyone assume the world will end according to their own time zone?) When our two misfits wake up in each other’s arms, they are plunged headlong into a new dawn. They have picked up new lives from the proverbial cloakroom. Thus begins their May-Decemeber romance, referenced by the episode’s title, “The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones.”

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