Every frame of Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident practically drips with the desire for ‘prestige.’ Filmed in the dense, verdant forests of Southern Tasmania, the Australian series pairs a Twin–Peaks-meets-Scandinoir storyline with sumptuous cinematography and a murderers’ row of Australian acting talent. That unabashed longing for recognition paid off – at least locally. The eight-episode series took home three gongs at last year’s AACTA awards, including Best Telefeature or Mini Series.
It’s hard not to admire the craft behind The Kettering Incident. The show is testament to the depth of talent in Australia’s television industry … except when it comes to screenwriting.
The show combines an enigmatic, possibly supernatural mystery – centring on the disappearance of two girls and the homecoming of unstable Dr Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debecki) – with contemporary social commentary on drugs, police corruption and the conflict between environmentalism and industry in Tasmania. It is – theoretically – resplendent with complex, thematically-dense storytelling that should have resulted in a compelling series.
It’s easy to see how the series seduced AACTA voters and critics alike. But it suffers from the same problem that plagues so much local television: writing that feels a few drafts away from the sophistication it strives for. Despite the enigmatic atmosphere consuming Kettering, every conversation feels bluntly utilitarian. An argument between Anna and her father (Anthony Phelan) concludes with him exclaiming, “I don’t want you here anymore!” – a superfluous line that a better writer would’ve omitted entirely. Later, Anna’s father spells out a Slim Dusty joke that required no explanation.
Granted, these are minor quibbles! But they’re emblematic of an approach to storytelling that flavours bluntness over subtlety. The world of The Kettering Incident is so vividly realised that it’s a shame – and, ultimately, a critical flaw – that it can’t render its conversations with same complexity. With the exception of Anna’s erratic, unreliable characterisation, almost every actor is forced to create their characters in the margins of the dialogue; something easily forgiven in a 100 minute movie, but devastating in a series stretching eight hours. Scenes that should have layers of ambiguity are instead forced into advancing the mystery one small step further.
Ah, yes, the mystery. There are countless series similarly constructed around a long-running mystery. But that mystery should serve as an entry point into a community, a framework around which to explore theme, character and even pure aesthetics. Granted, The Kettering Incident ventures along gnarly tracks in the forest, rummaging through its character’s contradictions or the nuances of Tasmania’s forestry-reliant economics. But every time it threatens to find something truly fruitful in Kettering’s depths, the screenplay veers back onto the main path to throw yet another twist in the tale.
Those won over by The Kettering Incident are presumably hoping for resolution to that mystery, which remains unresolved – at least, in its totality – by the time the credits roll on the final episode. There is a second season in development at the moment, and no doubt it will provide answers to its engaged audience members. For me though, I could care less about the specifics of the mystery. What I’m hoping for is something that’s content to explore other avenues. To allow conversations to breathe, to allow subtext to mature, to encourage the more sophisticated aspects of the series to come to the fore. To prioritise something other prestige.