There's no stopping Traffic. In 1989 the British TV miniseries Traffik, a Channel Four production, traced heroin trade along ancient smuggling routes from the poppy fields of Pakistan to the end user: teenage drug addicts in England. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh's equally downbeat epic, with an innovative multistrand story line, shifted locales to Mexico and the United States and earned four Oscars, including one for best director, and a nomination for best picture. This week, USA presents its own six-hour Traffic miniseries, with a new, terrifyingly human twist.
"What's happened is that there's now this huge international trade in smuggling people by using the heroin smuggling routes," said Ron Hutchinson, who wrote the screenplay for the miniseries, which premieres Monday. The drug routes have formed part of the infrastructure for the terrorist networks, he said; the networks' wheels are greased by drugs, which have become "the international underground currency."
"It's disposable; it's portable; it doesn't give you the headaches that a bundle of cash does because you don't have all the problems of getting it into the banking system and hiding it," Hutchinson said. "So there's this huge circle now, and it all comes back to drugs."
To dramatize the nexus among drugs, bodies, weapons and terrorists, Hutchinson devised three hopscotching story lines. A rogue agent (Elias Koteas) cuts off contact with his handlers from the Drug Enforcement Administration to broker a suspicious heroin deal with an Afghan drug dealer (Ritchie Coster), while in Seattle, his wife (Mary McCormack) tries to deal with their rebellious teenage son (Justin Chatwin).
Elsewhere in Seattle, a taxi-driving illegal immigrant from Chechnya (Cliff Curtis) worries about the fate of his wife and child, who are supposed to be hidden in the hold of a cargo ship. Simultaneously, a Seattle businessman (Balthazar Getty) who has taken over his father's garment factory gets entangled with a shady Chinese-American "businessman" (Nelson Lee) who is interested in importing more than textiles.
Stephen Hopkins, who demonstrated his ability to juggle parallel story lines as the Emmy-nominated director of 24 during its first season on Fox, was hired to braid the narrative bits together. "In the first two hours of this series, we had to do something scary, which is tell a bunch of different stories which you know are all going to collide later on but no one else does," said Hopkins, also a producer of the miniseries.
The global reach of drug-financed trafficking was certainly not lost on Hutchinson. "The drug business was the original multinational corporation," he said. "It's extremely efficient." And ruthless. Hutchinson, who was nominated for an Emmy for his work on a previous docudrama, The Tuskegee Airmen, made up fictional characters for Traffic but based much of the material on real events, including one he had heard about from a journalist friend at the BBC.
"Bodies had been washing up on the coast of Sicily for months, some of them with bullet holes in the back," Hutchinson said. "The story was, there had been a shipload of immigrants to be dropped off somewhere in Western Europe. The captain was being paid in heroin, something like a half a kilo a person. When the captain found some stowaways, the people he was delivering them to didn't want to pay any extra, so the captain basically shot a half-dozen people and threw them overboard."
Mary McCormack, who recently appeared in Soderbergh's HBO series K Street, observed fiction imitating fact daily while portraying Carole McKay, the well-meaning middle-class mom who's trying to keep her son from getting caught up in the urban drug scene. "I've never seen anything like it," McCormack said. "You'll be walking down the street in Vancouver and right there in an alleyway you see someone shooting up or doing crack. The people I spoke to in Vancouver were not shocked by that at all."
As Hutchinson tells the tale, Traffic courses to its somber destination fueled not just by the apparently incessant appetite for cheap highs but also by an equally powerful yearning for freedom. "I thought of this story as a way to explore immigration as much as the drug thing," he said. "I live in California and read all the time about people being found dead in containers coming from south of the border or being washed ashore on the Pacific Northwest. America is still this extraordinary beacon when you consider the terrifying things people will still do to get here."