Detective Jay Swan is back. Only he’s not quite a detective yet, though everyone knows he’s already passed the exam. He’s a bit younger too, with the fresh-faced Mark Coles Smith taking on the role from Aaron Petersen. Even his trademark cowboy boots and hat aren’t rusted on yet; when he’s out of uniform he’s more of a white t-shirt kind of guy. But that quiet, steely resolve? That’s Jay Swan all right.
This series might be billed as an origin, but Swan’s never needed one. He was an archetypical western character from the start, a lawman who rode (well, drove) into a series of lawless outback towns, straightened things out, then went on his way. And so it is here, though this time the lawless settlement is his dusty home town of Jardine, complete with grizzled old dad Jack (Kelton Pell) – who’s also a local celebrity due to a rodeo championship 30 years ago – and drunken older brother Sputty (Clarence Ryan).
He even meets up with the not-exactly police friendly Mary (Tuuli Narkle), who we first met played by Tasma Walton way back in the very first Mystery Road movie in 2013.
This franchise has covered a lot of ground since then, with two movies and two previous TV series. Throughout, it’s remained a mix of old-fashioned western and slightly less old-fashioned noir crime drama. This instalment is set in 1999 (presumably to keep mobile phones out of the mix) and there’s a younger face behind the badge, but some things don’t change.
Local prosecutor Abe (Tony Leonard Moore) might say ‘we’re a sleepy town, not the murder capital of the wild west’, but Swan has a gun pointed at his face by armed robbers twice in the first episode alone.
He’s returned home just in time to deal with a crime wave sweeping the town, and that doesn’t include the court case where local senior constable Max Armine (Hayley McElhinney) claims having breast milk sprayed in her face was assault.
While local sergeant Peter Lovric (Steve Bisley) is easygoing, and new officer Cindy Cheng (Grace Chow) is a fresh face – she hasn’t even seen a dead body when we first meet her – Max seems the weak link in the local force. Slapping the cuffs on Swan at their first meeting in a case of mistaken identity doesn’t help matters much.
There’s a lot of irons placed in the fire in the first episode, including an almost certianly racist group called Sons of the Soil, a mystery police file uncovered by new lawyer in town Anousha (Salme Geransar), and a break-in at Abe’s house that seems to have been more of a search than a robbery. There’s also Swan’s past to deal with. Both his brash father and his hard-partying brother are at odds with the stoic Jay, and it’s not going to be long before some buried issues there come to a head.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s in some of the plotting. Swan stirs up trouble in the local criminal fraternity by stopping by at an industrial machinery hire business … that just happens to have a massive statue of Ned Kelly out the front. That’s not the only Kelly connection to crime in the community; guess branding is important no matter what your line of work.
But early on Mystery Road: Origins is as much about character and atmosphere as it is about setting up future developments. Swan’s always a loner, but in later life he’s had demons driving him. Here he’s the same isolated, reserved character, only a little adrift, a man sleeping alone in a shabby motel because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Jardine is well-populated with a solid mix of characters (who doesn’t get excited to see Steve Bisley back on our screens?), but Smith is an easy stand out. Swan’s steely loner act here is still just an act at times; Smith knows just when to slip from distanced observer to lonely man, from hard-edged professional to slightly clumsy flirt.
To be fair, he’s had a bit of practice in the role. Blame Shaun Micallef for that: his series Mad as Hell has a running sketch parodying Mystery Road (and the filming and funding process for ABC dramas in general) titled ‘Curiosity Cul De Sac’. For a while a few years back it featured Smith as a thinly disguised but often overwrought version of Mystery Road’s lead. Now he’s playing the character for real.
Going by this series, Jay Swan couldn’t be in better hands.
Mystery Road: Origin
Writers: Blake Ayshford, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford, Timothy Lee and Dylan River
Director: Dylan River
Producers: Greer Simpkin, David Jowsey
Produced by Bunya Productions for the ABC
Airs Sunday nights on ABC and iView.