Review by C.J. Bunce
Something wicked this way comes–or at least is coming by way of Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia. The stark beauty of Tasmania is the best feature of the first episode of the new Starz original series The Gloaming (which means twilight or dusk), from mountain tops to rolling weather changes to waterfalls. But that’s where the beauty ends as a detective from Melbourne is called in to join a woman from his past who is also a cop, both to investigate a murder tied to the death of his girlfriend long ago. It all takes place in a part of the world most Westerners will find entirely curious and new. Written and directed by Victoria Madden (The Kettering Incident), The Gloaming begins this week with a slow-paced introduction that explains little and throws a lot at the viewer. This isn’t a travelogue for Tasmania, as each image seems connected to some kind of evil lurking around the next corner, like a new take on The Wicker Man.
In the pilot episode the viewer is taken back 20 years to an incident with two teens trespassing on a creepy old property, complete with graveyard, where the girl is shot by the owner. Flash ahead to the present and we’re taken along to watch almost voyeur-like as a woman in her late thirties is wandering through a stranger’s house after hours, ignoring the call on her cell phone from a girl that is a friend of her daughter, who is living with her father. What is she doing there, and what is her relationship with the home’s owner? We don’t get the answer yet, but this is one of many threads beginning to unravel. The woman is officer Molly McGee, played by Australian actor Emma Booth (Parker, Once Upon a Time, Gods of Egypt), a mix of 1980s Candy Clark and Jessica Biel, she’s a bit of a drinker, she drives a 45-year-old car with problems, and she’s the lead police officer on the latest murder (her disposition, clothes, and attitude tell us she’s not in her best place, like the lead cop in Bellevue). We’re told this is not a place that experiences many murders, which makes it unlikely to be a coincidence that the key players are all tied to the old murder of that girl outside the creepy home.
Australian actor Ewen Leslie (Peter Rabbit 2, The Luminaries) plays Alex O’Connell, the cop from Melbourne, who has suffered some recent trauma, and the fact he must return to Tasmania to help with the case triggers the shakes. He’s that textbook smart guy brought in from afar that we’ve seen in too many procedurals, and so far seems the closest to the lead in Prodigal Son. The first season is eight episodes, and it seems obvious a fair chunk of it will be about whether Molly and Alex get together or just spend the entire series arguing with each other.
An almost painful amount of the first episode is image after image without explanation, without any dialogue. The production may not be up to the quality Starz viewers are accustomed to. It also may just be a regionalism–audiences reacted similarly to their first viewing of Mad Max a few decades ago.
You’ll get the feeling sinister objects Molly keeps handling are part of the locals’ own brand of voodoo or hoodoo (think Skeleton Key). Are those ghosts in the shadows of every other scene? Something worse? Yes, it seems like the set-up for an Australian take on The Wicker Man, or supernatural series like Requiem, with a dose of Dublin Murders and The Five. Comparisons to Twin Peaks will be obvious, but this seems to be a more serious effort, happily with none of David Lynch’s quirks. We quickly see that all sorts of local people–played by a diverse and expansive cast of actors–may be tied into the murder and/or the fog of darkness that seems to be stuck to everything.
Despite a slow start, The Gloaming ticks off some important boxes that should get viewers back for next week’s episode (sorry this is Starz, so you don’t get all the episodes at once). The ambience is good with good camera work (thanks to Marden Dean and Tania Lambert), and the feel of The Returned (either version) gives the right amount of mood (if anything the first episode has too much ambience when it needs more storytelling). The townspeople are hiding secrets it may be fun to explore, maybe like in The Prisoner. And like Shetland filmed in far off Shetland and Hinterland filmed in Wales, this is an opportunity to dig into a very different place viewers will not have seen on their televisions before. If we’re lucky, this will be another Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Catch the first episode now. The Gloaming is streaming new episodes Sundays on Starz.