Review: Cinemax goes back to the ’70s for the super-pulpy ‘Quarry’

I used to keep a tally of what I referred to as “doughnut shows,” which were empty in the middle, thanks to a boring main character, but delicious on the outside. But in a recent conversation with my pal Maureen Ryan, as I listed some examples of that phenomenon – your Once and Agains, your Huffs – she pointed out that I had the food metaphor all wrong. These were not doughnut shows, she pointed out, because while the main characters were less exciting than the second bananas, they also weren't completely without value in their own right.

These were, she explained, tofu shows: “Like, put tofu in a good sauce with other stuff and I will forgive it for being tofu? It doesn't have much taste on its own, but it's all about everything around it pulling focus from it and actually supplying the flavor.”

Perhaps the greatest tofu show of all time was Boardwalk Empire, where Nucky Thompson was occasionally the most interesting person on screen, but more often than not seemed like a necessary evil to introduce us to Chalky White, Richard Harrow, Al Capone, et al. (The best Boardwalk season by far was the one where Nucky was at most co-lead alongside Chalky.)

Now along comes Cinemax's Quarry, which has many traits in common with Boardwalk. It's another violent historical drama with stunning direction and vivid period detail, but its hero can't help but come across as tofu compared to almost everyone around him.

Based on the series of novels by Max Allan Collins, Quarry – created by former Rectify writers Michael D. Fuller & Graham Gordy and executive produced by Banshee alum Greg Yaitanes, who directed all eight episodes of the first season (it debuts tomorrow night at 10; I've seen all eight) – is pure, unapologetic pulp fiction: the story of Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), an ex-Marine in 1972 returning from his second tour in Vietnam to his hometown of Memphis, where wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) is giddy to see him, while almost everyone else wants little to do with him due to his alleged involvement in a My Lai-esque atrocity. Ostracized, largely unemployable, and with only Joni and his best friend Arthur (Jamie Hector), who served alongside him over there, as companions, Mac is vulnerable to the approach of the mysterious Broker (Peter Mullan, the villainous father from Top of the Lake), who runs a local assassination-for-hire network and thinks Mac and Arthur would make fine hitmen.

“If you do this, you are who they say you are,” Mac tries to tell his friend and comrade in arms, but Arthur – who has the same baggage as Mac, on top of being a black man in a Southern city at a time when Jim Crow could still be felt in spirit, if not law – sees the Broker's offer as his best option, and gets both of their families sucked into a big, seemingly endless, pool of blood.

Marshall-Green, sporting stringy hair and a droopy mustache (both perks of re-enlisting) and a voice dark and thick as molasses, gives (like Steve Buscemi on Boardwalk) an excellent performance. There's a long sequence in the second episode, for instance, where Mac gets progressively drunk until he can barely stand; playing blitzed is one of those things few actors, even really good ones, can pull off without seeming actor-ly, but Marshall-Green seems genuinely, sloppily plastered. He's less the issue than the way that Mac's seething resentment at his situation feels calcified, like a requirement of the genre rather than something engaging in and of itself. And though the creative team puts in a lot of time and effort trying to make the troubled Conway marriage something the audience will want to root for, Joni never really comes to life as a person worth the bother(*), especially compared to some of the other folks involved.

(*) A few things happen in the second and third episode that should fundamentally alter the way Joni feels about Mac and her marriage to him, but both are largely shrugged off in the season's second half, in a way that suggests the series doesn't really care about her except as a relatively normal person for Mac to cling to as his life gets crazier.

Chief among those is Buddy (Damon Herriman, who played the lovable idiot Dewey Crowe on Justified), the Broker's chief scout – for potential talent like Mac (whom the Broker nicknames “Quarry” because he is “hollowed out, hard as a rock”), for guns, and for the best time and place to hit each target – and a semi-closeted gay man in a time, place, and profession where that secret is a huge liability. One of Herriman's first scenes involves lip syncing to a Spanish-language cover of Harry Nilsson's “Without You,” with such force that I almost instantly wanted the show to be focused on Buddy, and it's a drag that he's marginalized for the season's middle section, even if he gets to share scenes with The Leftovers' Ann Dowd as Buddy's seen-it-all mom. Buddy's wry, confident presence works wonders for Mac whenever they're partnered up, even if Mac is simply playing straight man to allow Buddy to describe a target's people as “Dixie-fried wild asses that are meaner than a sack of weasels.”

But then, there are a half-dozen potentially thrilling shows nestled within the actual show that is Quarry, including one told from the point of view of the Broker as he we get to see exactly how and why he pulls particular strings, or focusing on Arthur's family (Nikki Amuka-Bird plays his wife Ruth) dealing with various racial double standards that feel sadly relevant 44 years after the show is set, or perhaps one starring the great character actor Tom Noonan as another cog in the Broker's machine, speaking little and sporting a white beard so voluminous that his lit cigarettes seem to disappear inside it without ever lighting the thing on fire.

Of course, Quarry deserves credit for giving us this marvelous collection of supporting players in the first place, and some second bananas are meant to be exactly that, and suffer when asked to do more. (A show with the Broker as the star could, for instance, risk turning into an organized crime version of House of Cards where everyone is too stupid to stop the protagonist from getting his way.) Mac is a sturdier and more conventional leading man role than Nucky was on Boardwalk, even if he gets upstaged just as often.

And the show deserves enormous credit for how wonderfully it looks and sounds. As a guy who's worked primarily in TV, for the last 20 years, Yaitanes doesn't arrive on the project with the shiny movie credibility of a Steven Soderbergh or even a Cary Joji Fukunaga, but Quarry is every bit the directorial achievement that The Knick or True Detective season 1 were. The visual template is clean and bright, the better to capture the heat and sun of Memphis in the summer, and the compositions are quietly stunning, doing everything they can to put the viewer into Mac's increasingly paranoid frame of mind. There's a jaw-dropping sequence in the season finale that shows what really happened in that Vietnamese fishing village, presented as a 9-and-a-half-minute continuous take, yet by the time it happens, the show has casually presented so many other “oners” – the ranch house where Mac and Joni lives seems to have been designed by production with those kinds of shots in mind – that it's not really calling attention to itself by going without obvious cuts, but simply presenting what it actually felt like for Mac and Arthur to be in the middle of such a nightmare.

And few recent series not primarily about musicians (i.e., Tremé, Roadies) have used music, both live and recorded, as often, or as well, as this one does, befitting the town in which it takes place. (And, for that matter, the town in which most of the season was actually filmed: New Orleans.) Mac is an avid collector of soul music (one of the first things he does upon returning home is to inspect his Otis Redding records), and whenever he or another character is out and about in Memphis, they inevitably wind up in an establishment where live soul, R&B, country rock, or folk is being played, and those performances lend dramatic energy as much as local color to each scene.

You can only spend so much time wishing a show would transform itself into something other than the one the creators want to make – that the dish would find a way to revolve around another ingredient rather than the tofu. But though I had my reservations about Mac and (especially) Joni, I also happily blazed through all of Quarry over the span of a few days, when I could have easily set it aside after a few hours in favor of the small mountain of screeners I have for shows debuting over the next few weeks.

In one episode, Mac and Joni are holed up in a motel watching TV coverage of the Munich Summer Olympics, including the tragic news of the terrorist kidnapping, and eventual murder, of the Israeli team. Mac warns his wife, “Let me tell you how it ends: not well.” From the standpoint of some of the show's characters, these eight episodes also do not end well. But for an audience member, whether you fall in love with the Conways or not, Quarry ends very well, and in a way that leaves me hoping it can one day offer its own equivalent of that classic fourth season of Boardwalk Empire.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at