When “The Knick” debuted on Cinemax two years ago, it marked a substantial shift in content for Cinemax. HBO’s double-A affiliate took a swing in the big leagues with Steven Soderbergh’s beautifully captured period piece, and, while it didn’t exactly strike ratings gold, “The Knick” did earn the network a lot of attention — from critics, awards shows and the industry at large. So it makes sense that the network would follow up one dark period piece with another of similar construction. The only problem? “Quarry” suffers from the same issue “The Knick” did: They backed the wrong protagonist.
“Quarry” tracks Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), a Vietnam veteran returning home to Memphis after his second tour of duty. A minor celebrity for all the wrong reasons, folks back home suspect Conway did some bad things overseas — worse things than are required of war veterans. This overwhelming perception makes it hard for him to find work, and his flashbacks to time abroad make it difficult for him to convince anyone, even his own wife, that’s he’s doing OK.
Enter The Broker (Peter Mullan). This mysterious man makes Mac an offer he can’t refuse, only he does, so Broker goes to Arthur (Jamie Hector), Mac’s army buddy who shares the same skills required for this bloody line of work. From there, Conway is lured back into a world even more complicated — and heartbreaking — than his time in Vietnam, and we’re introduced to a number of new characters closely associated with The Broker’s many jobs.
All of this goes down within the slightly overloaded 73-minute premiere (really, just cut to 60 — no one needs the extra 13 minutes), and one can already start to see the parallels between “The Knick” and “Quarry.” Besides the black and white male leads working in a competitive profession, the new series also shares a period setting as distinct to viewers as it is beautifully captured. Quite simply, it’s the best production design work since “Mad Men” ended, and fittingly realized by veteran TV director Greg Yaitanes. “Quarry” even has a predilection for elaborate long takes. Many will point to a particularly rewarding sequence in the premiere, but a car chase in Episode 2, while shorter, provides an even more remarkable visual.
That being said, our interest in Mac’s journey fades in and out too often, especially when considering the stellar surrounding elements. “Quarry’s” central theme seems to tackle the war at home — how veterans are forced to adjust to civilian life after being forced to forget it overseas. Mac’s job allows him to use the “skills” he learned in Vietnam back at home, and how comfortable that makes him is a topic thoroughly explored through six episodes.
Yet it’s the means by which we analyze Mac’s struggles that grow a bit tiresome. Played to every possible extreme by the talented Logan Marshall-Green, Mac is too often seen screaming at his wife, Joni (Jodi Balfour), tearing apart his home or physically lashing out in general. Creators Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy stretch to provide scenarios that allow for varied reactions, but all these similar scenes stack up in a series with a steady, methodic pacing that demands introspection from its audience.
Perhaps we’d be able to overlook such redundancies if there weren’t such fascinating tertiary characters populating “Quarry.” First and foremost is Damon Herrimon’s Buddy, another employee of The Broker’s who’s been at it a little too long. We first experience his frustrations as jubilant outbursts unbefitting of typical hired professionals, and indeed he does not fit in with the world around him. Yet as we dig deeper into his personal life, Buddy becomes a bonafide discovery — someone who we’d watch every week if he was given enough screen time (and someone who could star in a David Lynch-like comedy version of “Quarry” if they expanded the scenes featuring Buddy and his mother, played by national treasure Ann Dowd).
Beyond Buddy, there’s Arthur and his family, all of whom take on a more prominent role close to midseason when school integration becomes a prominent B-story (that should be the A-story). Jodi, Mac’s wife, gets rounded out even earlier, and it’s only her ties to Mac that keep her from being as compelling as these other supporting players. All together, “Quarry” feels like it would be a solid ensemble series if it chose to be, but even then Mac would feel like the weak link. As a lead, he’s a nearly fatal flaw.
Whether you agree that “The Knick” was equally flawed in its decision to track the plight of a privileged, white, drug-addicted doctor rather than that of a persecuted, black, fight-obsessed surgeon is a matter up for debate (— elsewhere, as I’m not willing to argue it, given Soderbergh’s chosen ending for “The Knick”). Here, it’s an issue because everything surrounding Mac “Quarry” Conway is more interesting than Quarry himself. More importantly, the creators seem to know it, as they creep farther and farther from their lead’s story as the series progresses. Hopefully they arrive at an endpoint for Mac by season’s end (or a suitably big shift). But until then, you’ll have to revel in the surroundings if you’re going to get there.