If there’s an archetypal location-establishing shot for TV shows set in Tasmania, it’s more or less the opening one in The Tailings: of lush, green mist-ensconced mountains beneath an enigmatic blue skyline. This image communicates that we’re far from the big city, with its fancy lattes made from ethically sourced coffee beans, but also far away from Summer Bay: the postcard vision of coastal Australia as a sunbaked paradise of sand, bikinis and boardshorts. The wilderness in Tassie is ethereal-looking but dark, conducive to stories about secrets and obscured histories.
ABC TV’s delightful buddy comedy Rosehaven – starring Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola as dopey real estate agents – suggests things aren’t all bad on our island state across the Bass Strait. There are friendly locals, petty neighbourhood disputes, even an annual Hops Festival. But The Tailings is more in line with the cloak-and-dagger vibes of other recent Tasmania-set productions, which explore terribly tense subjects – including deranged nuns (Lambs Of God), murders and cults (The Gloaming), strange disappearances (The Kettering Incident) and penal-era revenge (the feature film The Nightingale). Justin Kurzel’s upcoming Port Arthur movie Nitram isn’t exactly going to make things more cheerful.
Structured in the format of six 10 minute-ish episodes, The Tailings is a hybrid of grief-stricken drama and small town mystery, almost neo-noirish at times, with a narrative that puts a spin on the old ‘something funny’s in the water’ plot. The snack-sized portions make it very bingeable, but also lean. As it progresses the dramatic intensity waxes rather than wanes, drawing us deeper into the characters’ lives and circumstances, but one comes out of the 60-ish minute running time wanting more. Not in an entirely positive way: after such a measured build-up, the ending feels a little abrupt and unsatisfying.
Following that opening shot of the misty mountains, a lot happens in The Tailings very quickly, the bitsy format perhaps compelling director Stevie Cruz-Martin and screenwriter Caitlin Richardson to waste no time. A tension exists throughout the series between the completeness of an overarching narrative and small pockets of drama needed to make 10-minute instalments work. Establishing parallel narratives, Cruz-Martin and Richardson alternate between (and periodically combine) the stories of headstrong teenager Jas (Tegan Stimson) and her new schoolteacher Ruby (Mabel Li).
The pair meet a few minutes in, with Ruby pulling into the small town where the show is based and asking Jas for directions. She receives a response even less helpful than a glitching Siri or a crumpled old Melways with pages missing: “Take a left down there and hang a right, keep driving for like 8,000 metres, chuck a U-y, turn left and go fuck yourself!” says Jas. These are, incidentally, the same directions I was given by Dave Hughes when I bumped into him on the street one time and asked where I could find the bogan primordials he got his mangled ocker accent from.
In other words: not the welcome party the nervous Ruby, keen to make a good impression and settle into a new life, was hoping for. The two principal characters are at very different junctures in their lives, with very different motivations: the teacher trying to fit into a new community versus the youth rebelling against the system. Jas is belligerent but has good reason to be, or at least she believes she has good reason to be. Her father – who we see lying motionless next to a creek in one of the show’s earliest images – recently died while fishing. The official word is that his death was an accident, but Jas is convinced there was foul play. She even blames the school for it, yelling at a visitor during assembly, “You fucking murdered my dad!”
This is the central mystery: whether Jas’ seemingly wild accusations have any bearing in reality, or whether her grief has mutated into baseless rage and hysteria. Determined to find answers, she goes sniffing around and learns things about her dad she never knew. The Tailings is hinged on several key secrets.
Ashley Barron’s cinematography further conveys the feeling – though not in the obvious ways – that certain undefined, possibly undefinable things are lingering out of view. Washed-out blue colour-grading implies a tone of thoughtful mystery. And sometimes when the show gets dark, it gets literally dark. For instance, when Jas questions dodgy blokes about her father, you can barely even see these men in the frame, let alone discern their expressions.
At first blush it seems the more sedate Ruby belongs to a different, purer kind of narrative, one devoid of mystery and darkness. “Welcome learners, I’m your new teacher!” she dorkily proclaims on her first day in the new classroom, and gets the kind of facepalm reaction you’d expect. A person like this has to be dull as ditchwater, right? Nah: she too has skeletons in the closet, because this is Tasmania. A place where – according to the Australian film and TV industry – only real estate agents live pleasant lives.
Tegan Stimson delivers an excellent performance as Jas: antagonised and outraged, expressed in a way that communicates deep wells of emotion. Our difficulty in reading her personality is exacerbated by the fact that we are meeting her during a tumultuous period in her life. Mabel Li is also very fine as Ruby: her performance grows with the character, adding depth and shedding the polite shy aura that provides an initial protective layer. Is she going a bit crazy because… Tasmania is a bit crazy?
In the 1990s Jerry Seinfeld famously described Melbourne as “the anus of the world”. Assuming he’s correct – and he is, of course, if one associates the buttocks of the earth with its lowest points on the map – then what would our island state across the Bass Strait be? I’m tempted to name more precise parts of the human anatomy to continue the metaphor, but let’s just say that despite those beautiful mist-ensconced mountains, terrible bad things happen in the bowels of the world. At least according to the teev.
‘The Tailings’ is available now on SBS On Demand