I often don’t understand what people mean when complain about “trying too hard”. Surely someone who tries hard is committed and goal-focused; how can that be bad? However, I think I finally figured out this typical Cosmopolitan headline as soon as I watched the first episode of Quarry, HBO’s latest television series that attempts to seduce us in a golden era where several excellent candidates contend for a delightful waste of hours on end in front of a television or computer screen.
The effort to make Quarry great is so palpable you can almost give it a massage. Does it have that fashionable slow-burning rhythm that generates incredible moments in The Americans or Better Call Saul? Yes. Does it have a tortured, flawed anti-hero such as those in Breaking Bad, The Night Of or even Mad Men? Yes, it does. Does it have long, contemplative silences like True Detective? Of course it does. Does it have scenes that make it obvious they spent a load of money on photography direction like Homeland? Check. Does it have real images from historic 20th century events like Narcos? Oh, how did you guess? Yes, yes it does.
Based on the novels by Max Allan Collins, Quarry tells us the story of Mac Conway’s (portrayed by Logan Marshall-Green) tough return home after fighting in Vietnam. It’s set in 1972, ironically the same time period as Vinyl, another megalomaniac HBO series that didn’t last longer than one season. Mac thinks he’ll return as a war hero, but the world doesn’t care for veterans. On arrival he runs straight into an anti-war protest. He’s got no job and no one’s sympathy.
It’s true that this context has been used to exhaustion, with the Vietnam War being one of the main sources that both television and cinema have drawn inspiration from over the past few decades; it’d take a work of genius to get Quarry to stand out from the crowd. Having said that, such historic context is interesting enough, set in early 1970s Memphis, one of America’s most important cities musically speaking, with music being a constant element in this series, with frequent use of rock, soul and jazz sounds. Depicted in the series there’s also the large African-American population, marginalised and oppressed in many instances – and let’s not forget the Nixon vs. McGovern presidential election.
I tried my best to pay attention to this series, but often felt like a child punished with a long car journey, as my brain kept shouting “Are we there yet?” It didn’t make me particularly reflect on the impact that such war would have on someone; instead, I found myself reflecting on how unbearably hot it was in here. I worried whether was I going to cope with watching yet another episode, as there were eight of them. Throughout the season there are several, inconsistent high and low points. The narrative is unsteady but eventually works to some level in the long term, apart from the middle episodes when it’s painstakingly slow.
The second half of the season premiere was probably the most painful, so if you cope with that then you may as well continue watching. (SPOILER ALERT!) We find out that the series is called “quarry” because an organisation wants to hire Mac as a contract killer in a scene that takes place in a quarry; I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly damaged my eyeballs. The epic finale to this episode is when Mac finds out his first target is actually his wife’s lover, in a plot twist that would make a Casualty screenwriter hide in shame. Mac then kills him by crushing him under a car this guy was inexplicably trying to fix at silly o’clock in the morning, in what must’ve been the world’s most insufferable and deadliest case of insomnia. (SPOILERS OVER)
Quarry also tries too hard to be symbolic, such as when Mac is swimming in a pool he built with his own hands in a house he probably won’t be able to afford now he’s unemployed; it just comes across as forced – it’s not quite the same as Tony Soprano and his ducklings. It also goes overboard trying to be daring and adult, with unnecessary sex and drug scenes, which are not only pointless, but also ultimately boring.
I found myself thinking “but HBO rarely ever messes up series!”, but then I remembered Quarry was released on their Cinemax network, the usual place reserved for series that aren’t good enough for the main programming but not bad enough to sell to another network. It’s definitely not the type of series that’ll please everyone, often too slow and whose realistic tones, created to develop proximity with the public, can come across as too conventional at times. The script is unsteady but somewhat compensated by good performances and Greg Yaitanes’s solid production. Neither major nor secondary characters are perfect or meant to be loved, but we can cope with that. As of yet, Quarry hasn’t been renewed for a second season, although its story could potentially still have something to offer. Although it isn’t by any means a crown jewel at a time when televised entertainment is at its best, it’s fair to remember that, sometimes, it’s okay to watch something average too.
Quarry is out now on DVD and Blu-ray