After years of hammy performances and ropey writing, The Bad Seed represents a landmark for New Zealand serialised drama. Duncan Greive reviews.
Serialised New Zealand television drama is something of a paradox. It’s our most lavishly funded screen form – a single season will often cost more than the entire current affairs programming sector gets for two whole years. Yet it’s also probably the least consistent area of New Zealand television, with hits like Westside nestled alongside a greater number of overdressed and underwritten attempts to ape it. (Bizarrely, the same problem only rarely afflicts our one-off dramas)
From the moment it was announced, The Bad Seed contained the promise of something different. The source material was the key – a pair of novels from Charlotte Grimshaw, which took a world she knew well and imagined a tangled socio-political web running through them.
It arrives this week to TVNZ1, playing over five consecutive nights, and more than delivers on the hopes pinned to it.
This is largely down to the writing. An early episode draft was replete with “cliché, schmaltz and outdated idioms”, as Grimshaw put it in an excellent companion piece to the show, and she made sure that (tantalisingly unnamed) writer was banished from the production. The script as filmed is taut and spare, the sound of people under immense pressure trying to muddle their way through. Essentially it is writing which knows when to get out of the way, and allow plot, direction and acting to drive the show.
The story it tells is of a murder in a leafy suburb, one which cracks open multiple orderly lives, with troubled adolescent pasts catching up with adults who’ve tried to outrun them. The opening scene is a lesson in dread, a dog deeply perturbed, an owner too tired and emotional to notice, a murder which shocks Remuera. Across the road are the Lamptons: Simon (Matt Minto), a paediatric surgeon, his wife Karen (Jodie Hillock), their two girls and his brother Ford (a brooding Dean O’Gorman), an arborist staying with the family. Simon starts out as a witness but swiftly becomes a key suspect as his connections to the victim and patchy alibi are revealed.
In tandem we meet the leader of a conservative party, a powerful man on the brink of an election who is very controlled and controlling, instincts which run headlong into the fraying of his young and troubled wife. The two families’ paths cross in ways which threaten each one, while Madeleine Sami plays a hardboiled cop, relentless in her cornering of Simon Lampton.
What sets The Bad Seed apart is its restraint. The titles are gorgeous, subtle and eerie, while Karl Stevens’ score drips with menace, occasionally rearing and snarling. It’s replete with unexplained relationships, glimpsed clues, and flashbacks which don’t get immediately resolved, and, pleasingly, is confident the audience can handle that.
The restraint is also there in the way the characters are formed. Wealth is common as a backdrop in our drama, yet often rendered as buffoonish caricature in shows like Filthy Rich. The depiction is smugly self-congratulatory, their homes, clothes and behaviour garish to the point of soapy absurdity, as if the writers think punching up is enough, without ever thinking to aim. The Bad Seed’s money is quiet and self-contained, displayed through everything being exactly in its place. The stakes come from the mask of composure slipping, rather than over-engineered plot points exploding at regular intervals.
It’s not a perfect show by any means. The naturalism does not extend to lighting, with the bizarre blues, reds and greens common to shows like The Strip still showing up at times in 2019. The police station in particular is looks more like a bar, a place rich in atmosphere but in which work is unimaginable.
While the dialogue is mercifully free from the corny zingers of the main style of our drama, it sometimes is functional to the point of bloodlessness. There’s also a reveal midway through the second episode which feels so fast and so flashy that it unavoidably calls to mind Shortland Street’s hammy villainy. This is not a criticism of that excellent soap, but it’s clearly not what the creators were aiming for.
Yet these are relatively minor issues with what is mostly confident, assured television. The Bad Seed is the first local crime drama since Harry to be set in an Auckland you can recognise.
After years of drama which has felt entirely unmoored from international trends, and lectures from over-commissioned creators about what audiences really want, it’s exciting to think that local audiences finally have a show from here with values and virtues which feel connected to the international television zeitgeist. The Bad Seed is not the finished product by any means, but it begs for a second season or related project, one which allows its team to evolve and the sinister power structure it covers to grow with them.
The Bad Seed airs on TVNZ1 at 8.30pm over five consecutive nights from tonight, April 14
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.