The Casual Vacancy: J.K. Rowling’s Non-Potter Tale Comes to HBO

The Casual Vacancy
Steffan Hill/HBO
The Casual Vacancy

Listen up, kiddies–we’re not at Hogwarts anymore. HBO’s new three-part miniseries The Casual Vacancy, adapted from the 2012 for-adult-eyes-only novel by Harry Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, depicts a microcosm that’s about as purposefully devoid of magic as possible. The setting: Pagford, England, a picturesque countryside village brimming with every imaginable flavor of strife. When Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), an impassioned defender of the underprivileged and an all-around stand-up guy, suffers a sudden brain aneurysm, it leaves an open seat on the local parish council. A nasty three-way election for his spot promptly ensues–along with oodles of other unpleasantness. “Barry’s death sets off a chain of events,” director Jonny Campbell says. “It creates this huge vacuum that exposes the rotten core of a lot of people’s lives.”

Among them: Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), the corrupt council leader who’s hoping to turn Sweetlove House, a subsidized facility that provides aid to low-income families, into a hotel and spa. That’s especially bad news for Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), the rebellious teen daughter of a junkie–Barry had taken a special interest in helping her–who now believes that her best hope of escaping her dire circumstances is getting knocked up by a less disadvantaged classmate. “She’s like a 19th-century heroine being tossed around on this sea of change,” Campbell says. “We’re asking the question: Can the sense of good that Barry brought to this community be replaced?”

In a word, no. Pagford sinks deeper into moral and social unrest until, Campbell says, “the characters spiral toward a tragic conclusion.” (And how: Those familiar with the book will know when to start cringing behind the sofa cushions.) If all these Muggle problems sound too realistic to qualify as escapist entertainment, well, then, The Casual Vacancy has fulfilled its destiny. “There are no magic wands in this story, and perhaps that’s the point,” Campbell says. “In life, we don’t have those to get us out of trouble. We need the compassion of others. And that’s what’s so fascinating.”

The Casual Vacancy, Wednesday, April 29, 8/7c, HBO