From its title, “Sasquatch” sounds like the story of Bigfoot — and at the start, it looks that way too. The three-part documentary series begins with journalist David Holthouse recounting the time he visited a cannabis farm and overheard the tale of three workers who had been devoured by the legendary beast.
“Sasquatch” shares with its most prominent on-screen voice, Holthouse, an abiding interest in looking beneath the surface of the seemingly ordinary. “As an investigative journalist, I believe the truth is never told in nine to five hours,” he tells us. Experienced at going undercover — he has lived among those aforementioned cannabis farmers as well as street gangs and neo-Nazis — Holthouse sets out now to uncover the truth of this piece of his memory.
What he finds at first is a deep belief in Bigfoot among the rural Northern California milieu. This sense of a monstrous presence has many roots, as the documentary successfully argues — there’s the ungovernability of the landscape, as well as the way it attracts the conspiratorially minded. Director Joshua Rofé, previously behind the Lorena Bobbitt doc “Lorena,” has a sensitive, curious eye for a particular sort of American oddity and willingness to find one’s own truth. This sensibility rhymes with something within the work of executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass too.
Though it’s never cruel, the first episode relieves the tone of dread a bit by examining local beliefs around Bigfoot. That includes following two men who are partners both in love and in the hunt for Sasquatch, though they disagree about the beast’s supernatural qualities. It’s in their bickering that one sees a lightness to this American mythmaking, a way to bring corporeal form to the wonder of a landscape that will never be fully mapped.
But as the series continues, it moves beyond its title monster, and Sasquatch becomes less symbolic of pleasurable enigma and more of a haunting, upsetting mystery. First, we are given another reason why the monster has such a hold on this corner of the world: The area where Sasquatch has held the greatest currency over time is one where the limitless Western sky runs up against the hard limits of human greed. It’s where conquest of and violence over territory, from the white settlement mania of the Gold Rush to present-day battles over land for the cultivation of marijuana, have been a defining force. “A lot of blood’s been spilled under these redwoods,” says one observer,
describing massacres of Indians. “Sasquatch” argues that it’s comforting to have a malign force, something more powerful than humankind, on which to blame these crimes. Holthouse describes the hunt for Bigfoot as like “grabbing at smoke” — frustrating for those earnestly seeking truth. But for those seeking an airy way to explain away real-world ills, excuses like Sasquatch are welcome.
The series develops a layered sense of its Mendocino County setting, a place where DEA raids have created a climate of mistrust and harm. And as Holthouse tells us with true-to-form wit, it’s where the hippie community is not as benevolent as it may appear. The population of the groweries are “listening to the Grateful Dead but packing an AR-15”; he describes work he had done, as an undercover employee, setting up booby traps at farms. Locals warn Holthouse not to probe into the case of deaths pinned on Sasquatch, and when he talks to others about someone believed to be connected to murder, that name is bleeped out. The world of pot growing connects to conspiracy thinking not just because of the characters it attracts but because of the stakes, and players’ willingness to defend their livelihoods with violence.
Holthouse is a compelling guide. He also brings to bear his own understanding of monstrosity. We learn that his extreme tolerance of risk, which has made him such an effective gonzo journalist, has roots in a “diminished sense of self-worth” that took root after he was sexually assaulted. The willingness to take chances is the engine of one kind of drama in “Sasquatch.” This story about a journalist delving into darkness becomes at least somewhat about the conditions under which it was made, and the beliefs and fears that spur Holthouse on.
By the end, “Sasquatch” is about a furry mountain beast only in title. But it shares one quality with the protean figure of lore: It is a shape-shifter. Intrepid both in its pursuit of truth and its readiness to interrogate why that truth is interesting to us, “Sasquatch” is an impressive, propulsive piece of work. And for all that the genuine strangeness of an environment new to many viewers is riveting in the moment, it’s the elemental, fairly simple emotions that stick: A survivor of a dead man, weeping in grief and in fright; Holthouse’s own curiosity and sense of self-loathing; the fear crackling through texts he receives, urging him to leave well enough alone. On that last point, it’s the viewer’s good fortune that Holthouse didn’t listen.
“Sasquatch” launches on Hulu Tuesday, April 20.