In recent years, Cinemax has begun to emerge from the shadow of its much more famous sibling, HBO. By offering gems like “Banshee,” a savvy rural noir; “Strike Back,” an addictive action hour; and “The Knick,” a wry and perceptive take on the medical drama, Cinemax established itself as a destination in its own right, one that offered a canny mixture of quality escapism, admirable aesthetics, and economical storytelling.
On the surface, “Quarry,” the network’s newest offering, appears to share a number of qualities displayed by the network’s other genre-flavored programs. The new show, which is set in Memphis in the early ’70s, has a Southern-fried noir vibe, and features a troubled lead character, Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), who finds himself drawn into a series of fraught situations that turn increasingly violent. Director Greg Yaitanes, an essential part of the “Banshee” team, skillfully establishes an observational ’70s vibe that presents the era in washed-out tans and browns with olive-green accents, and recalls films like “Walking Tall” and “Coming Home.”
Unfortunately the dour Mac is less interesting than some of the supporting characters around him, and the pacing on “Quarry” too often stalls. For all its fidelity to Memphis soul, the show lacks the texture and vitality of its setting, and in the first four of the debut season’s eight hours, the series comes off like a retread of an array of cable dramas that preceded it. It’s not so much a galvanizing take on a sturdy genre as it is a relatively flat antihero hour that doesn’t quite set itself apart from its predecessors. Moments of well-choreographed action and a few pulse-pounding chases aren’t enough to distract from “Quarry’s” more derivative qualities.
The pilot, which doesn’t quite earn its 76-minute running time, depicts Mac coming home from his second tour in Vietnam. He and his best friend, Arthur (Jamie Hector), are glad to see their wives (and in Arthur’s case, his kids). But they both have trouble finding jobs, and without giving away too much about their reentry to civilian life, it’s sufficient to say that the men don’t feel exactly welcomed home by their fellow citizens.
It’s a promising premise, especially given that Mac is white and Arthur is black, but soon “Quarry” veers off in other directions, and Mac becomes involved in an increasingly Byzantine plot that never really make a whole lot of sense. Extensive efforts are made to recruit him into a life of crime, but it’s hard not to wonder if those elaborate resources would be better spent on actually fleshing out the criminal empire of the powerful, string-pulling boss known as the Broker (Peter Mullan).
Perhaps as the season progresses, the audience is meant to identify with some of the helplessness that Mac feels as he becomes the pawn of a powerful and often opaque conspiracy. But too often, the over-arching story is more confusing than intriguing, and the show’s sex and violence — which remain staples of the Cinemax brand — feel repetitive, not revelatory. At least the efforts to turn Mac into the Broker’s unwilling foot soldier allow several supporting actors to do great work.
Peter Mullan, who was terrific in “Top of the Lake,” is effortlessly chilly and strangely charming as the Broker, the man who is determined to recruit Mac into his dangerous world. Damon Herriman (“Justified”) is transfixing as Buddy, an eccentric and yet delightfully entertaining member of the Broker’s posse. Every scene Herriman is in, especially those that also feature Buddy’s mama, Naomi (the great Ann Dowd), made this viewer want to watch an entire show about Buddy’s complicated life as a gay man in the South — one who is somewhat unwillingly caught up in a ruthless world of criminals and hit men.
And yet the lead character in “Quarry” is not the Broker or Buddy; it’s Mac, whose roiled internal emotions are meant to be compelling and yet never consistently rise to that level. Most of Mac’s story lines revolve around self-pity, jealousy and revenge, qualities that are threaded through his rocky marriage to Joni (Jodi Balfour). The prevailing note of glum desperation is rarely leavened with humor, and attempts to deepen Mac’s plight fall flat, given that most of the show’s developments follow the predictable contours of dozens of TV dramas that have preceded it.
Mac’s self-pity, his sense of dislocation and his abiding sense of guilt over various tragedies that befall him could be the foundation of an engaging, character-driven TV noir or action hour, but “Quarry” is overly committed to an almost uniformly drab, if not sour, tone. While the show creates a distinctive setting and has a few characters worth meeting, “Quarry” never quite makes the case for why viewers should care about the sullen Mac’s increasingly desperate plight.