This fall Cinemax will continue its stealth push toward the world of top-notch programming with the addition of the violent, Vietnam-era crime drama Quarry. Based on the books of Max Allan Collins, the pulpy series stars a long-haired and mustachioed Logan Marshall-Green as Mac Conway, a disgraced marine struggling to come to terms with the horrors he saw and participated in during the war.
But despite the moral quandaries at its heart, Quarry's biggest battle isn't actually one of morality, but visibility.
Since its birth in 1980, Cinemax has existed in the shadow of its mighty big brother HBO. It's faced an uphill battle in its attempt to make a name for itself in original programming while shedding its early, unfortunate Skinemax identity. The fact that Strike Back, a co-production with the U.K. and one of Cinemax's earliest original dramas, often amounted to what felt like little more than boobs and bombs for part of its run, didn't help the network shed that image and solidify it as a go-to destination for prestigious dramas.
Still, Strike Back was frequently better than it had any right to be, especially toward the end, and Cinemax followed it up with the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Knick, a critically acclaimed original that ran for two seasons. Unfortunately, despite this small bit of success, the network still fell short when compared to the competition. The closest it probably came was Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler's Banshee, with its impeccably choreographed fight scenes and high narrative ambition, and the series was still the epitome of under-watched and underrated.
Can Quarry break this trend? The eight-episode first season follows Mac's return to his hometown of Memphis, a city that no longer wants him after his participation in the fictional equivalent of a My Lai-like massacre, and Mac's subsequent entanglement in a web of crime that spans the Mississippi; which doesn't necessarily seem a recipe for a general audience's next great TV obsession.
And the series definitely isn't perfect by any means — lengthy running times means it sometimes drags in places, and Mac's wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) never amounts to much while more interesting characters, like Damon Herriman's (best known as Justified's lovable idiot Dewey Crowe) closeted henchman Buddy, don't get nearly enough screentime.
But luckily for Quarry, where whiskey flows like water and loneliness threatens to drown everyone in sight, the series manages to find success in the individual stories woven into its larger arc. Once Mac is caught in the grasp of the powerful and mysterious crime boss known only as the Broker (Top of the Lake's Peter Mullan), the journey forces him to confront his growing paranoia and the gnawing isolation that comes from a world in which he no longer belongs. The result is a series that only gets better as it progresses, and one that's soundtracked to some of the finest music to come out of the '60s and '70s.
Aiding in the show's success and Mac's twitchy unraveling as a gun for hire is the way the show taps into the tensions that permeated one of the most infamous and tumultuous eras of our nation's history. Burdened by near constant reminders of the atrocities of Vietnam, Mac struggles, like many returning veterans do, to re-assimilate to civilian life, to a world in which his actions seemingly have no importance. When you throw in the dangers of the Broker, the threat of infidelity, a one-legged man out for vengeance, a hateful, racist community willing to let its feelings be known, and the weight of real world tragedies — the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred just four years prior and the harrowing events of the 1972 Munich Olympics are featured in one of the season's eight episodes — Quarry becomes an entertaining if gloomy drama carefully constructed to paint a portrait of a world that's turned and left its men to face problems on their own.
Quarry's ability to impress and entertain maybe shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Its showrunner — and the director for each of its eight episodes — is Greg Yaitanes, an Emmy winner with a lengthy resume who most recently served as an executive producer and director on Cinemax's Banshee. Meanwhile, series creators Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy, who also wrote six of the show's eight episodes, are both veterans of the slow-burning Rectify. The acclaimed Sundance drama, a Southern-set study of the human condition, shares similar beats with Quarry as its explores one man's return to an unwelcoming town, this time after 19 years on death row.
The combination of Fuller and Gordy's writing and Yaitanes' expert direction results in an addicting, murky crime drama populated by messy, purposefully unlikeable characters, and one that paints an intriguing portrait of a man, a city and a marriage in need of repair.
So what will it take for Cinemax to break into the ranks of HBO and Showtime, to fit in with the critical darlings of basic cable networks like AMC and FX? Well, Quarry probably won't get the job done on its own, but for now that's more than all right. The series is wildly entertaining and absolutely another step in the right direction for a network that's proven it can produce quality, compelling entertainment time and again. Keep up the good work.
Quarry premieres Friday, September 9 at 10/9c on Cinemax.