Savage River opens with a shot of a river. Then we meet lead Miki (Katherine Langford, from 13 Reasons Why) on a bus that happens to be driving alongside the river, then we see her look out at the river, then she gets off the bus and goes to sit by the river, and then we get the title credits, which also feature the river. What was the name of this series again?
That said, after the opening there isn’t really much of a focus on the river. Which is possibly a good idea as we eventually discover that the reason why Miki has been away is that she was in prison for killing her best friend … in the river. Maybe don’t drink the water for a while after that.
So this is a series about a young woman who returns to her home town after a long stretch in prison only to get wrapped up in solving a mystery that uncovers the dark secrets at the heart of her sleepy community? Didn’t we see that story earlier this year with Troppo? Well, yes – but the similarities are only skin-deep.
Savage River starts out much more character-focused, as we follow Miki’s faltering attempts to restart her life. The parents of her dead best-friend are torn, with Colleen (Jacqueline McKenzie) wanting to forgive and Hugh (Andrew Gilbert) remaining a flaming ball of hate. Her (fraternal) twin Terry (Cooper Van Grootel) and his four year old daughter Ocean – lucky he didn’t name her River – seem happy enough to take her in, while her mother Lynn (Nadine Gardiner) is … well, ‘estranged’ seems like something of an understatement.
It’s soon clear that there’s two sides to the first episode of Savage River. One involves setting up the town of Savage River, where a local election is looming based largely on conditions at the local meatworks. Two words: they’re crap.
The owner Kevin (Daniel Hensall) is fond of telling his largely migrant workforce that he can’t take time off whenever he feels like it so they don’t deserve sick days; meanwhile, he’s secretly planning to sell the business, which will no doubt send the whole town up some kind of river or creek.
The other side is Miki’s attempts to find a way to restart her life. There are numerous reminders of just how much she’s missed out on, including failed efforts to reconnect with schoolmates and a surprisingly sad moment when she stops in at the local chemist to get her ears pierced.
Putting on a short skirt and heading down the pub to get drunk turns out to have a deeper objective too, thanks in part to the presence of Joel (Mystery Road: Origins’ Mark Coles Smith), who’s part of the clean-up crew at the meatworks.
The two halves finally combine when Miki gets the worst possible job at the meatworks: sorting guts. She’s replacing a worker who’s vanished, and the missing woman’s brother-in-law (Osamah Sami) isn’t happy about it, even if privately he refutes his wife’s suspicions of foul play with proof (well, he found condoms, so it’s hardly conclusive) that she ran off with a boy.
Sorting guts, and the meatworks in general, are pretty graphic stuff if you’re not a fan of animal carcasses. It’s a confronting and somewhat jarring choice for a series that otherwise sometimes verges on a small town soap opera.
The leisurely pace early on doesn’t help either. Individually the scenes largely work, but they don’t build on each other – we’re given a lot of information, but much of it feels like the kind of thing that should have been slipped into a scene about something else.
A bigger problem is that the set-up is full of contradictions that work against the drama. Miki is spurned by much of the town, but her brother’s got her back so things aren’t that desperate. She’s trying to start her life over, but she pushes Joel away so her problems are partly her own fault.
Something sinister is going on at the meatworks, but we keep cutting away from there so the tension doesn’t build. It’s an interesting location for this kind of drama, but it takes too long to be put front and centre.
Thankfully, things come together in the final few scenes: the cliffhanger ending is easily the strongest part of the episode. Future instalments pick up the pace, especially once big city cop Rachel Kennedy (Virginia Gay) turns up (of course, she has a connection to the town as well) and the series shifts firmly into mystery-solving mode. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse does her best to keep things looking interesting (assisted by cinematographer Don McAlpine), but she’s not always given a lot to work with.
Savage River isn’t exactly a missed opportunity, but a slow start doesn’t do it any favours. A strong cast and some intriguing set-ups promise a decent pay off. Whether audiences are willing to stick around that long is the real mystery.
Savage River airs on the ABC Sundays at 8.30pm, and is also available on iView.