Just as plenty of wags have pointed out that the county of Midsomer seemed to attract cold-blooded murderers like flies to honey, a small Tasmanian town literally called Deadloch is practically inviting a corpse to surface in dramatic fashion. Or, if not that, then some kind of work of horror, but the zombie apocalypse has hit its wilderness years – so murder mystery it is.
Obviously a chalk-and-cheddar, Tango-and-Cash pair of mismatched detectives isn’t some incredible new invention, but Deadloch’s two leads differ so much in tone it’s as if they’re from two different shows – Madeleine Sami’s city cop acts like she’s the product of a profane ‘strayan Brooklyn 99, while Kate Box’s country cop is more strait-laced Scandi-noir material.
This, though, is not so much of a sticking point as the fact it’s marketed as a comedy. For much of Deadloch the funnier side of things ends up treading water, trying to stay afloat clutching at its profanity and its folksiness and the inherently silly nature of the new-age events that half the town does not like. The narrative is simply reluctant to turn the more ‘serious’ nature of a murder investigation into a farce, even having dropped Sami’s blasé-cop into it.
What Deadloch does do well is invoking the tensions of the quintessential small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and grudges do not fade away. The thing is – as The League Of Gentlemen demonstrated – this kind of dark-edged parochialism is pure comedy fodder, and again Deadloch is only willing to take that so far. A man being told of his brother’s death and exclaiming “I loved that cunt like a brother!” (a sequence used prominently in the trailer) is about Deadloch’s limit there.
When the comedy is successfully woven into the plot, as opposed to tacked on round the edges, it’s usually in the form of our lead investigators screwing up. Naturally, this is something they can’t indulge in too often, there’s not a lot of appetite for murder mysteries where the investigators make absolutely no headway and the killer gets away scot-free.
But frequently, elements which could so easily have been funny are treated with a heaviness that seems undue while Sami’s burping her way through the investigation. A junior constable’s engagement to a profoundly awful man, the case impacting on Box’s relationship with her wife, whatever tedious mishaps the misplaced local teens are getting themselves into, all this is treated with plodding tombstone weight rather than the breezy heartlessness of “I loved that cunt like a brother”.
For such a Sappho-centric show, and one which uses the handy shortcut of making its less-sympathetic characters casually bigoted, Deadloch’s oddly eager to have its main characters indulge in outright stereotyping. I’m no criminal profiler, maybe statistically poison really is a woman’s weapon, but there’s no excuse for the police rounding up suspects based entirely on their demographics, a practice I’d hoped had gone out with the White Australia policy.
(And while I might not usually mention this, there does seem to be a bit of nepotism going on behind the scenes. The show’s created and written by Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, and one of the leads is played by Kate Box? Not cool, guys, it’s the 21st century.)
Deadloch is all too clearly gesturing to being a show where every plot thread, no matter how inconsequential or unlikely, is part of the same grand twisty mystery, but when it comes to the crunch it still feels far too disparate. It is less the great dawning realisation of a puzzle piece clicking into place, than it is ‘oh, right, that’s why that…yeah, okay’ as something else is tacked on and then never mentioned again.
Rather than growing its own connective tissue, insofar as Deadloch’s trying to patch all its moving parts together it relies in large part on harking at grander issues – the small town’s burgeoning lesbian population, Australia’s torrid relationship with its own aboriginal people – which, whatever your opinion of these things, do not serve the narrative purpose the show wants them to, and certainly do not make an adequate replacement for character development.
Any work set in a small town has to tread a careful line – it cannot let you know every member of the community, but must at least take a stab at making you feel as if you do. It is probably this, more than anything else, that Deadloch misjudges the worst. Too often it will drop a name from its too-big raft of townsfolk and sit back, as if expecting your awe, having spent a good amount of time establishing characters we will never meet again.
The main dramatis personae are at least recognisable at a glance, but beyond that they basically have to give the named characters a gimmick so we can keep track, and often don’t even do this. Sami’s habit of reflexively dubbing people with insulting nicknames, eg ‘horse-hair’ and ‘big-eyes’, could have paid real dividends here if she’d simply done it more.
What prevents this from sinking the narrative completely is that this is one of those murder mysteries where you the viewer are following along with the investigators’ floundering, rather than one where you are saddled with the dramatic irony of already knowing who the killer is. You are, at least, not alone in the murkiness, and the revelations – be they red herrings or otherwise – come at a fairly watchable pace.
This is about standard for the murder mystery. Revelations conveniently pop up around the act breaks. And likewise, while Box and Sami do bring a certain charm to inevitably learning to get along, it is inevitable, it is by the numbers in a way that Sami’s cop would immediately call in order to knock off early for a couple of schooners. It might be on the other side of the globe and full of lesbians, but Deadloch, for all intents and purposes, is still firmly within the familiar borders of county Midsomer.
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A straightforward, in-and-out murder mystery which would have done well to lean more into its foul-mouthed ‘strayanness.
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