Inert ABC mystery series Savage River offers only a thin trickle of suspense

A small town, a bitter homecoming, a dead body: there aren’t many new ideas in the ABC’s Savage River. Travis Johnson says it’s not terrible, but it sure feels like a letdown considering the talent involved.

Returning to her home town of Savage River after a decade-long absence, Miki Anderson (Katherine Langford) receives a muted welcome—which is understandable when you learn she spent her sojourn in prison for murdering another local girl. Nonetheless, she reconnects with her mother Lynne (Nadine Garner) and twin brother Terry (Cooper Van Grootel), gets a job at the local meat works, and starts catching up on all the things she missed out on during her time inside—including hooking up with local charmer Joel (Mark Coles Smith).

Unfortunately, Miki’s reintegration into society is scuppered when a dead body turns up. It’s Hugh Lang (Andrew Gilbert), father of the girl Miki supposedly killed back in the day, which is a hell of a coincidence. With herself the obvious main suspect, can Miki clear her name in the face of overwhelming hostility from her former friends and neighbours?

A better question might be: do we care?

There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a product from a collection of hugely talented artists that simply doesn’t work. In addition to a ridiculously stacked cast—Jacqueline McKenzie does duty as the bereaved Mrs Lang, Daniel Henshall crops up as the manager of the slaughterhouse, Osamah Sami is one of the refugee workers being exploited there, and even veteran actor Robert Grub gets a turn as the local cop. Savage River is directed by no less a light than Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker) and shot by legendary cinematographer Don McAlpine (everything from Moulin Rouge! to Predator).

The six-part series’ pedigree is impeccable. Its effect is soporific. Perhaps it would have worked better as a feature film, but production opportunities saw it brought to life as a series instead—the binge-watching model attracts more eyes than the cinema these days, after all. But it feels like there’s only enough actual story to sustain a hundred minutes or so, and certainly not enough for 360. After a strong initial set up, any sense of momentum quickly drains away, and we’re left to cool our heels following a number of unengaging subplots while the minutes tick by.

Not that this sort of genre exercise needs to move like a bullet; small town mysteries benefit from a sense of community and place, all the better to weave a few false threads into the fabric of the narrative. And we love our small town mysteries here in Australia: look at recent successes like The Dry and ABC’s own Troppo (which shares a female ex-con protagonist with Savage River) as examples.

But Savage River’s attempts to round out its setting and characters feel like filler, and often woefully melodramatic filler at that. A moment where the camera lingers outside the morgue while McKenzie goes in to look at her husband’s body and we hear her scream echo down the hospital hallway is nigh-parodic.

For all that, there are interesting elements in play. An attempt to address the immigrant experience in rural towns is admirable, but the material is handled better elsewhere: comedian and author Sami Shah’s audio drama The Missed, another small town mystery released recently, comes immediately to mind. The notion of centring a story around a slaughterhouse intrigues—it certainly promises a more visceral tale than we normally get—but adds nothing except an odd kind of novelty.

Performances are solid, even when the dialogue falters, as it does frequently—that these characters ever feel real is down to the work of the actors rather than the script. To be fair, Savage River isn’t terrible. But it’s inert, and boring, and unambitious. Perhaps those are worse sins—at least truly dreadful shows are memorable, after all.