Quarry (out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD) tells the story of Vietnam vet Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) and his struggles to transition back to home life in 1972 Memphis, struggles that eventually lead him to accept work as a hitman from a shadowy figure he calls The Broker.
The eight-episode series aired on Cinemax last fall without a lot of fanfare, getting cursory reviews from TV writers who've got what seems like 10 times as many shows to watch as they did a decade ago. Everyone messed up.
Based on a long-running series of pulp novels by Max Allan Collins, it's easily the best crime show from the HBO networks since The Sopranos and it's a far more compelling and nuanced on the post-Vietnam South than Hap & Leonard, the still very good Sundance Channel series that starts its second heavily-hyped season later this month.
Mac Conway volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam alongside his hometown buddy Arthur Solomon (Jamie Hector from The Wire & Bosch). They're shipped home after a My Lai-inspired shooting incident and they find themselves part of a national scandal. That notoriety makes it hard to get a job and Arthur succumbs to a lucrative offer from the mysterious Broker (brilliantly played by Scottish actor Peter Mullan), an offer that Mac had previously (and wisely) rejected.
Mac and Arthur are not using a laptop in 1972. They're checking out the dossier on their first target.
Still, Mac feels compelled to assist his battle buddy when Arthur wants help with the hit. Things go wrong and Mac gets sucked into the life, forced to repay a debt that's not his own. He struggles to rebuild his marriage to Joni (Jodi Balfour), who's found a career as a rock critic at the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper, while working (killing) to get out from under the Broker's thumb.
The original novels have remained popular (and he's kept returning to the character) because Collins does such a bang-up job of using Mac (nicknamed "Quarry" by the Broker) to update the classic noir thriller for a post-Woodstock culture. Show creators Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy (who previously worked on Rectify, another fantastic show that no one seems to know about) understand that Quarry is about a time and a place as much as it is about character. They've put as much effort into recreating 1972 Memphis as Matthew Weiner did for 1960s Manhattan in Mad Men, a feat that seems even more impressive when you realize that neither guy has personal memories of the era because they weren't actually born yet.
The set design is spectacular all the way through, so much that you can almost smell the nicotine and just-about-to-turn bacon fat in everyone's kitchens. Filmed in Memphis and rural Louisiana, they've managed to locate houses and motels that seem to have gone almost untouched for the last 40 years.
The Music of Memphis
Quarry's characters have an affinity for music that's neither forced nor some kind of defining character trait. Music is part of the local culture and becomes part of the story in virtually every episode. Felix, another one of the Broker's contractors, is also a session bass player who works for the kind of second-tier studios that were all over the city then, a reminder that not every talented player got to work for Stax. That scene is well-chronicled on the Memphis 70 compilation, a CD you'll want to check out after you get obsessed with this series.
Mac is a huge fan of Otis Redding and his frustration over a missing copy of the Otis Blue LP fuels the show's first big twist. The show also features what will be the first and last appropriate music cue by Memphis underground legends Big Star. They were never popular in their day but they were a well known local band and Joni got her big break at the paper profiling the band. When their song shows up at the end of episode 2, it's a natural plot point instead of a "look at how hip we are" music choice.
The tablecloth suggests that Joni and Mac hanging out at notorious '70s Memphis nightlife hotspot TGI Friday's, the one where famed photographer took the back cover photo for Big Star's "Radio City" LP.
Contemporary musicians J. Roddy Walston & the Business and Blackberry Smoke make cameo appearances: Roddy sings a rock cover of Sam & Dave's "Goodnight Baby" while the cops drink in a popular Midtown bar (ok, I'm just guessing that it's Midtown Memphis) and the Smoke covers the Allman Brothers' "One Way Out" when Mac follows a mark to a dive bar. Since I personally know members of both bands, I'm going to blame Facebook for keeping the news out of my social media feeds when the episodes first aired.
The season's climactic showdown happens in November 1972 at Dixieville, a low-rent amusement park called owned by Credence Mason (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), an aspiring drug lord who's got the classic Elvis sideburns and sunglasses. The show's only glaring period errors happen there: Credence talks about going to to the strip club to see the girls dance to Kool & the Gang. "Jungle Boogie," the band's first hit big enough to crash the exotic dancer scene, didn't come out until 1973. And there's a moment with a Pong arcade machine after the shootout. There may have been a few machines in California bars by then, but I'd be willing to bet that Memphis didn't see one of those until late 1973 or early 1974. Is that some weird nit-picking on my part? Absolutely, but I'd argue that the fact that such minor mistakes were so jarring is a tribute to just how perfect the rest of the show is.
The core of the show's success is Logan Marshall-Green's exceptional performance as Mac Conway, who conveys almost all of the pain and struggle with his eyes and his fists. In an era overflowing with chatty TV characters who overexplain every motivation, it's startling to see a story told through mostly action and reaction. Marshall-Green has never enjoyed the career he deserves. He was the best thing in Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus and he's outstanding in the upcoming Iraq War drama Sand Castle.
There are some major reveals in the final episode. The full story of the incident in Vietnam gets told in flashback and we learn that it's had a much greater impact on Mac's life than he could have ever imagined.
Peter Mullan is The Broker.
Quarry has so much going on that I'm not even talking about the outstanding performances and character arcs for Damon Herriman (Justified) as Buddy, Edoardo Ballerini as Karl and Josh Randall as Detective Tommy Olsen. Casting was complicated because Cinemax originally filmed a pilot with a different supporting cast and dawdled before ordering the series. Many of the actors in the series are replacements for the original cast and the producers did a stellar job of filling the gaps.
There's no word from Cinemax about season 2, but this is a show (unlike, say, Vinyl) that deserves a chance to find the audience it deserves. The suits at AT&T/Time Warner/HBO/Cinemax should commit to Quarry for at least a couple of more seasons. They could start by making their Max Go app available on Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire instead of just mobile devices. Or by streaming Quarry through their HBO Go and HBO Now services. And they should do an Emmy push for the show next fall.
If Quarry can maintain the level of detail it achieved in its first season, it could become a classic crime drama. There's certainly plenty of ace source material in Max Allan Collins' original novels. Watch the show now however you can and keep your fingers crossed for season 2.