Screen Test

Tortured assassin with a sensitive soul

A Vietnam veteran is forced to become a contract killer in new crime series Quarry, which is also a portrait of a marriage in flux

There are so many crime dramas on television now, it takes a lot to get viewers hooked on a new show. But two debuting series give it a go, the first by trying to make you feel sorry for a contract killer, and the second hoping you will sympathise with two members of that notoriously oppressed class, the millennials.

Premiering this Saturday, Quarry is adapted from the classic pulp-fiction Quarry novels by Max Allan Collins and stars Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) as the title character, an American soldier who returns from Vietnam in 1972 to find himself ostracised because of the unpopular war.

He also battles post-traumatic stress, marital woes and dismal job prospects, the latter forcing him to become an assassin for hire in a killing network.

We've seen sympathetic anti-heroes and reluctant killers before, so this isn't exactly new, although the backdrop - the deep south and seismic social shifts of the 1970s - is.

Logan Marshall- Green is the soldier back from war and Jodi Balfour (both above) plays his wife in Quarry. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Also not novel, but interestingly developed, is the notion of the assassin with a sensitive soul. Quarry's menacing boss, The Broker, is given to quoting William Faulkner, while Buddy, the closeted gay hitman Quarry works with is also, paradoxically, a sensitive soul.

This leads to conversations about the ethics of contract killing - whether it is justified when the targets appear to deserve it, or how different it is from the state- sanctioned murders in Vietnam.

The series is also a portrait of a marriage in flux. As was the case for many Vietnam veterans, Quarry comes home to find his relationship with wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) subtly altered. While he was away, she discovered women's rights, the sexual revolution and counter- culture, with the shelf that once held her knick-knacks now stuffed with books.

With its references to unpopular wars, shifting gender politics and race (the family of a black veteran is thrown into an ugly battle over school desegregation), the show taps the current strain of historical introspection exemplified by shows such as American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson and Confirmation (about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings), which use the recent past to hold a mirror up to the country's current woes.

This weightiness also screams "prestige drama". So, too, does the artful direction, which has recreated the 1970s with admirable restraint, unlike some series that get so lost in the period they become caricatures.

Yet Quarry does not fully cohere as a compelling human or social drama. Marshall-Green probably has his fans, but the former The O.C. star's factory settings seem to be "intense and brooding" and "super intense and brooding".

And if you don't root for him, or buy into his tortured-soul-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - flashback act, the enterprise falls apart.

What doesn't help is the slow place of the narrative, which feels a tad too languid despite the short eight-episode season.

Mark Strepan (left) and Ben Tavassoli (right) star in buddy-cop comedy-drama New Blood. PHOTO: BBC

New Blood, on the other hand, has no tortured protagonists. There are plenty of untimely deaths here, too, but the BBC series opts for jaunty and slick rather than dark and moody.

It is essentially a buddy-cop comedy-drama about two guys in their mid-20s at the bottom of the career ladder in law enforcement: trainee police detective Rash (Ben Tavassoli) and junior fraud investigator Stefan (Mark Strepan).

They are thrown together while investigating a series of criminal conspiracies by large corporations, government officials and the rich and powerful - which these days seem to increasingly populate the roster of the usual suspects on police procedurals.

The cases tap the concerns of modern Londoners. There is a conspiracy involving a big Shard-like skyscraper, one of the many large foreign-owned construction projects scarring the capital's skyline, in which units are sold to buyers in places such as Singapore but often left unoccupied.

  • QUARRY, S 1

    Cinemax (StarHub TV Channel 611)

    Saturdays, 10am and 10pm. Also on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602 /StarHub Go)

    3/5 stars

    NEW BLOOD, S 1

    All seven episodes available on demand on BBC First (StarHub TV Channel 522)

    3/5 stars

But what really distinguishes New Blood is its casting of millennials as underdogs: Rash and Stefan are smart and capable, but stymied at work because of their youth and inexperience, with older colleagues and bosses often underestimating and patronising them.

Priced out of the housing market like so many others, they struggle with awful flatmates and landlords, or the ignominy of living with parents. And, in another nod to the realities of modern Britain, both are cultural outsiders - Rash the son of Iranian immigrants and Stefan of Polish heritage.

Many young people in big cities will be able to identify with them, and this, together with the corporate-conspiracy paranoia, make for a refreshing update to the conventional British crime drama.

One drawback is that the mechanics of the actual crime- solving are uninspired.

The writers also need to come up with better examples of millennial nous. Instead, you have Rash saying, with a flourish, that he found a suspect by "Googling him", or figuring out simple clues that his older colleagues just so happened to miss.

Hardly a ringing endorsement for the overlooked wisdom of his generation - and, as millennials might say, a little "basic".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Tortured assassin with a sensitive soul'. Subscribe