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‘Deep Water’ first look : addictive SBS crime drama inspired by real life

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Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the rather exciting state of Australian television. I had no idea that, so soon into the future, I would be spending four consecutive hours slack-jawed and square-eyed, completely addicted to another locally made head turner: this one a four-part police drama starring Yael Stone and Noah Taylor as Bondi homicide detectives.

Stone (best known for Orange is the New Black) gives Deep Water’s protagonist, Detective Senior Constable Tori Lustigman, a fiery don’t-fuck-with-me indignation and a real sense of compassion and decency. Taylor, on the other hand, gawd luv ‘im, still resembles The Nostradamus Kid or the hand-in-pocket juvenile coming of age in The Year My Voice Broke.

The 47-year-old looks like he necked a gallon or two straight from the fountain of youth. That boyish zest doesn’t help when it comes time for him to do adult things – like kick a door down or wave guns at people. And the moustache, to toughen him up a bit, isn’t fooling anybody.

There were times in Deep Water I wished that moustache was pencil thin, and Taylor would twirl it like a magician, warming up for the inevitable future whereby he finally lands that role as Moriarty. They were, however, relatively few and far between, for the simple reason that Stone and Taylor got game: not a particularly realistic pairing, but irresistible detectives nevertheless.

The cast is propped by supporting players including William McInnes (as a crabby fair dinkum sergeant), Danielle Cormack (a crime scene investigator) and Ben Oxenbould (a haunted man who one evening, as these things tend to go, Saw Too Much). There’s genre thrills and spills aplenty; all one expects of a homicide serial. It’s the show’s real-life connections, however, that give the drama real kick, turning it into something of a television event.

The premise is rooted in a gnarly what-if. What if…a gay-hate serial killer is on the loose, using a Grindr-esque app (called Thruster in the show) to lure victims? When the detectives examine their first corpse in Deep Water the chap looks, shall we say, a mite worse for wear. Dead, of course, for starters. Also with his genital region obscured by a pool of blood and a carefully positioned blanket to restrict the audience’s view.

The Grindr-esque app is not the real-life connection; screenwriters Kris Wyld and Kym Goldsworthy have broader-reaching historical associations in mind. The detectives discover the case they are investigating bears some similarities to a spate of unsolved crimes committed during the ’80s and ’90s. Such crimes are matter-of-fact in real-life Australia, and the correlations are far from incidental.

SBS is billing Deep Water (directed by Shawn Seet, who helmed both seasons of The Code) as a milestone: the first cross-genre and cross-platform event in the network’s history. That’s marketing speak for its premiere (on October 5) coinciding with a feature-length documentary and online web series. Without those it’d still be clear a frighteningly real inspiration was coursing through the creators’ minds, something that gives Deep Water heft and gravitas.

At one point Stone says to Taylor, as the two detectives converse on Bondi Beach during sundown, “there was a killing epidemic that went on in the past. It went under the radar and it is back, because it was not dealt with”. This is one of several instances – you’d run out of fingers on both hands if you counted – where the writers want to tell you something so bad they stop just shy of spelling out the subtext on a post-it note and sticking it to the lens.

Still, Deep Water is an electrifying watch, with a cracking pace and several stirring performances. The fused contemporary and sort-of historical premise is a very compelling context. How many articles have you read about gay hate crimes? How much has it been an issue? It seems to be a part of Australian culture where we have not so much been told to look the other way, as told virtually nothing at all. Producers Darren Dale and Miranda Dear were inspired by the question: “why isn’t this news?”.

To see a TV show that fiddles around with genre to set an agenda in such a way reminded me of Ivan Sen’s feature film Goldstone, which expertly uses outback noir to rethink how we consider business interactions with the Australian landscape (i.e. mining). In Deep Water I would have loved a little more character in Bruce Young’s cinematography, perhaps a more distinct palette in the colour grading to give it some edge. It’s not exactly Scandi-noir.

But a great many things about Deep Water impress. The first episode (no spoilers) starts strong and ends with a cliffhanger. By halfway into the second ep, I realised I was addicted. By the end of the second tingles were going up my spine – or maybe they were shivers. In the third and fourth episodes…well, tune in for yourself. You’ll be talking about it afterwards, that much is for sure. And chances are the conversation won’t be about Noah Taylor’s moustache.

5 responses to “‘Deep Water’ first look : addictive SBS crime drama inspired by real life

  1. I discovered this on Netflix streaming. I always search out tv and movies from Australia because of the overall excellence of their production and acting. When I saw that Yael Stone AND Danielle McCormack were both in this, I clicked “watch” immediately. BTW, I thought that Wentworth was far and away better than OITNB, and the draw here for me was McCormack.
    Anyway, I was totally enthralled by episode one of this series, and I feel guilty watching the other three episodes on a sunny Charleston day..However,I am sure that these other episodes will be as rewarding as the first one way.
    Does anyone have any recommendations for other Australian productions? Netflix has had a few offerings during the time that I have had the streaming service, and they seem to be expanding. I loved Rake, Wentworth, and Offspring, and hope that NF will keep on providing more of the quality tv and movies that I have come to love from Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland…..
    Thank you for reading!

  2. It is as though this piece was written to conform to the PC template that guarantees production funding, and to the age-old and unwritten rule that one should never vilify the police. As usual in too many Australian television and film dramas, the scripting was well under the bar, the direction, which paid too little attention to the drive and interaction of the characters, was, by and large, close to the bar, with only a few disappointing moments. The story, although promising great things early on, became a meandering set of self-conscious scenes, which ultimately gave way to conservative whitewash. The actors were a mixed bag, some very fine character work, some excellent technical work, a number of standout supporting performances, but the leading players too often drop the ball or variously under or over play. The script ( which promised so often to contain a great story line) too often employed the sweeping arm of coincidence, and occasionally failed to support its own logic.

  3. This is an incredibly well done mystery series with not just crime but characters you really like. I thought the main characters worked well because they’re both such good actors. They managed to both do “wrong” things and still back each other up. So much to love here. As someone from the U.S., I want to say you’re lucky to have such good tv as this. We watch Acorn, b/c much U.S. stuff is superficial and typecast. Not the case here.

  4. I was stabbed in Darlinghurst in the late 70’s in a gay area. It was so quick I didn’t know that it had happened until someone who’d seen it ran up to me with a towel. It cut right to the bone in my upper arm….a few inches closer and it would have hit my heart…28 stitches later the hospital called the police – the police said they had someone called “The Mad Slasher” who’d been doing things like that. I never heard back from them and didn’t hear about any arrest…..great work piggies….I guess it wasn’t that important…just another poof getting his just deserts….

  5. My partner and I were attacked just off Oxford St in the 80s. We were threatened by 3 guys in business suits who threatened us with knives before kicking us nearly senseless – I still don’t know why they didn’t shiv us. We limped, covered in blood, to the local police station to be met by total indifference and a refusal to follow the attackers. We had to get our neighbour to take us to hospital. As we were driven to hospital we saw the thugs walking up Oxford St; later that night, a lone man was ambushed, stabbed and killed. F**k the police.

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