At first I thought, ‘here we go again.’ Eden is an eight-episode mystery-drama in which a troubled girl goes missing in a superficially idyllic coastal town full of secrets. Haven’t we seen a thousand TV shows like this? What makes this one different?
Stan is billing Eden as a female-led project that explores human relationships through the lens of sex and desire. Creator Vanessa Gazy – who leads an all-female writing team – collaborates with Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger of Every Cloud Productions (the Miss Fisher Cinematic Universe) and Skins creator Bryan Elsley of Balloon Entertainment.
While there’s an actual southern NSW town called Eden, this series has a Byron Bay-like setting where tropical forest meets beach, and a lighthouse sweeps the night. Like Byron, Eden is a social melting pot where the descendants of colonial landowners and working farmers and fishers mingle with countercultural bohemians, hedonistic tourists and dissolute Hollywood stars. It’s glowingly photographed by Geoffrey Hall (Bloom), while costume designer Lizzy Gardiner (Peter Rabbit 2) has boho fun with drapey linen shirts, wafty cheesecloth goddess frocks and outré satin kimonos.
Scout (Sophie Wilde) grew up here, where her mum Saranya (Alexandria Steffensen) runs a luxury wellness retreat and is now pregnant to an idiotic yogi toyboy named Huckleberry (Dustin Clare). At 20, Scout is a talented cellist who’s home for the summer from The Juilliard School. And she longs to reunite with her best friend Hedwig (BeBe Bettencourt, last seen in The Dry as another lost girl) – with whom Scout is secretly in love, unbeknownst to her sweet hometown boyfriend Fred (Hunter Page-Lochard).
But Hedwig has changed. She’s now coolly evasive to Scout, who’s dismayed to realise Hedwig is dealing drugs for local hippie misfit Cam (Keiynan Lonsdale). And after a pill-fuelled party turns ugly at the mansion of local boy-turned-Hollywood bad boy Andy Dolan (Cody Fern, doing a wonderful Andrew McCarthy Brat Pack impression), Hedwig pushes Scout away angrily before vanishing into the forest.
Hedwig’s disappearance is just the latest headache for stressed-out local police superintendent Lou Gracie (Christopher James Baker), who has his own private desires to hide, and is struggling to solve a drug-related murder within a slack workplace culture dominated by the unctuous Sergeant Ben Drysdale (Claude Jabbour).
Now Gracie also has to babysit his patrician wife Octavia’s (Leanna Walsman) shambles of a cousin, Detective Constable Ezra Katz (Samuel Johnson). Ezra is a once-brilliant investigator whose alcoholism – and resistance to police corruption – has made him a pariah and laughingstock. But he’s always been a misfit in Eden, where his activist-author mother Florence (Maggie Kirkpatrick) is now in the undignified late stages of dementia.
I did not warm to Eden in its first episode. The characters seemed stale and stereotyped, their relationships telegraphed through dialogue and flashback sequences. But the clever thing about the series is the way each episode builds on the last: we see the same events several times from different characters’ perspectives, and travel back in time to find out what happened in Eden while Scout was away in New York – and even in some characters’ childhoods. Then the show leaps forward to reveal what happens after Hedwig’s disappearance.
This looping, iterative narrative structure enriches our understanding of the characters, their motivations and the connections between them in a town of stark economic and social disparities. In many ways this is a story of intergenerational traumas, in which a generation of parents damaged their kids, who go on to fuck up their own kids – and the town in general.
Samuel Johnston and Sophie Wilde. Image: Every Cloud Productions
Many of these pressures come to bear simultaneously on Hedwig, like an ant caught in a magnified beam of sunlight. Her ruined junkie dad Michael (Simon Lyndon) idolises her but can’t raise her; and her former school principal Katia Van Der Linden (Rachael Blake) mentors Hedwig in a maternal way that turns oppressive. Unlike jetsetting star Andy or the pampered, privileged Scout, Hedwig has no way out of Eden except by getting down in the muck.
The weakest episode of the four I previewed was episode two, which focuses on a truly unpleasant Sydney couple, Cora (Cassandra Sorrell) and Damian (Mark Leonard Winter), who’ve come to Eden on holiday – ostensibly so Damian can finish writing a play, but mostly to sticky-tape their failing relationship back together with drugs and sex. While they represent the transactional hedonism driving the drug trade that’s ultimately rotting the town, their character arcs don’t add much to the show’s narrative or themes.
For me, the most compelling character is Ezra, who’s skimming rock bottom but nonetheless provides Eden’s moral compass. With his dishevelled, hangdog appearance and signature husky whisper, Samuel Johnson leans into his character’s pathetic humiliation; Saranya – for whom he’s long held a torch – tells him he looks “old”, while in a lucid moment his mum tells him he looks “sad”.
But Johnson also plays Ezra as a dogged and resourceful investigator who instantly grasps the source of the town’s malaise, and strives to put things right. He finds an unexpected ally in Scout, who realises belatedly how little she really knew Hedwig – and must struggle with her own complicity in this fallen paradise.
4 stars: ★★★★
Creator: Vanessa Gazy
Executive Producers: Deb Cox, Fiona Eagger, Bryan Elsley, Vanessa Gazy, Nick Forward
Producer: Fiona McConaghy
Writers: Vanessa Gazy, Jess Brittain, Anya Beyersdorf, Clare Sladden, Penelope Chai
Directors: John Curran, Mirrah Foulkes, Peter Andrikidis
A Stan Original: all eight episodes streaming from June 11 on Stan