10.10.08

On the Subject of Durham County...

Having been inundated with ads for Durham County for two weeks straight about eight months ago, the delayed-reaction suggestibility part of my brain finally clicked off and I wound up renting it last weekend. I watched the six episodes back to back, and was more than a little puzzled by what I'd seen.

For the most part it's a standard enough story of a guy who loves to murder (Justin Louis), and the incredibly contrived series of interrelated coincidences that conspire to cover up for his crimes. Peep this:

1 - A serial killer rapes and murders two teenage sisters.
2 - By an amazing coincidence, Justin Louis happens to be walking through the woods when the murders are happening, and he finds himself so aroused by the sight that he decides to make up for all the frustration in his life by going back to the scene of the crime and molesting the corpses.
3 - That same day, a homicide detective moves in across the street from Justin. The detective's wife is recovering from cancer, and he has two alienated daughters.
4 - It turns out that, in another amazing coincidence, the detective that happened to move in across the street is Justin Louis's teenage rival. Twenty years ago Justin Louis was drafted by the NHL, and then he claimed to have slept with the detective's girlfriend, so the detective hit him with a car, ruining his chances of playing pro hockey.
5 - Justin Louis' son is an apparently talented writer, and his teacher wants him to go to a writer's workshop, but Justin won't let him.
6 - Justin and the teacher have a morning meeting, and he gets so angry about her wanting to support his son's writing that he murders her.
7 - Justin Louis then spends the rest of the day hiding in the woods with the body so he can dispose of the corpse, leaving him with no alibi for the entire day.
8 - By an even more amazing coincidence, the teacher had been having an affair with the detective - they had met in a support group for people whose family members have cancer.
9 - Justin Louis is such a big shot around town that no one would suspect that he also loved murder.
10 - The teacher stabbed Justin Louis in the arm with a pen, which was found on her corpse, but the cop assigned to bring it into Toronto for evidence processing is such a lazy lout that he just doesn't bother doing so.
11 - In another fantastic coincidence, Justin Louis swings by a strip club where the serial killer just happens to be meeting with a real estate agent, which then allows him to follow the killer to the farm where he'd planned to murder said woman.
12 - This gives Justin Louis a chance to show up unexpectedly and murder her as well, after the serial killer abruptly leaves.
13 - Startlingly, in both the case of the two dead teens and the real estate agent, the police fail to notice that there are two separate sets of tire tracks going to the scene, one from a corvette, and the other from an SUV.
14 - After leaving Justin Louis, his wife comes across the short story that the teacher had given Justin Louis, precipitating her murder. She turns it over to the detective, who, for no reason, makes no attempt to bring her into the police department to make an official statement about the story, or establish a formal chain of evidence.
15 - When the cop finally gets around to heading to Toronto to drop off the pen, he mentions it to Justin Louis first as they're both leaving a hockey game. This gives Justin Louis a chance to ride along with the cop, get him into an isolated area, murder him, and set the car on fire, destroying the evidence. Despite the fact that a lot of people saw Justin Louis get into the car with the cop - the car that would explode just a half hour later with a dead cop in it - no one thinks to ask how Justin Louis survived, or why he disappeared for three hours after the hockey game.
16 - The detective is both having money problems and doing renovations on his house, which gives Justin Louis the opportunity to buy the detective's car second-hand from the person the detective sold it to, and get inside the detective's house by offering to fix a few things (Justin Louis is a plumber by trade). Luckily, this gives Justin Louis a chance to plant evidence all around linking the detective to the teacher's murder.
17 - It wouldn't be plausible that the detective could be suspected of the teacher's murder, except that, by an even more preposterous coincidence, on the day that Justin Louis spent twelve hours murdering the teacher, the detective drove into Toronto to beat up the guy who had killed his partner, which left him without an easy-to-explain alibi. Interestingly, he eventually gives this alibi, and even though it checks out pretty well, no one thinks to question why Justin Louis doesn't have an alibi for the entire day that the teacher died.
18 - After leaving Justin Louis, the wife is stalked by the serial killer, who has no idea that the woman he's stalking is the wife of a man who had randomly followed him to two separate murder sites.

Isn't it amazing how basically all of reality conspires to cover up for this one guy's totally unplanned and off-the-cuff murder schemes?

The really unusual thing is that this is a story that really didn't need any kind of elaborate coincidences to get going, because the central idea of the plot (hinted at in every interaction, but only outright stated in the final episode) is that Justin Louis had such a screwed-up childhood that the one thing he relied upon to get him through his troubles was his friendship with the detective. It was a friendship that he guarded so jealously that when the detective had started seriously dating someone Justin Louis had raped her as part of a scheme to make the detective think she was cheating on him. That scheme backfired on him, because it led to the whole 'attempted vehicular manslaughter' thing that ruined Justin Louis' hockey career.

Since that's the main relationship that the story revolves around, why not make it the precipitating incident that sets the plot in motion, rather than Justin Louis just randomly witnessing a murder by coincidence? Justin Louis' life is one of bottomless disappointment and quiet desperation, but then when his former best friend moves in across the street, he sees it as his best chance to recapture his glory days. Being rebuffed by the detective - who's got his own problems - would make Justin Louis all the more isolated and angry.

Angry enough that when a business associate (the serial killer was traveling around as a guy building condos, so he'd have reason to hang around Justin Louis, owner of the biggest plumbing company in the area) suggests they pick up a couple of random teenage girls after a night of drinking, Justin Louis would have gone right along with the rape and murder that ensued.

After killing once, Justin Louis then resorting to murder whenever his frustration reaches a breaking point would have made a lot more sense. Also, giving him a direct connection to the serial killer would have explained why that character keeps hanging around. At the same time, Justin Louis could have, while stalking the detective, found out about his affair with the teacher, which would have given Justin additional motive to kill her. The way her death isolates the detective further could have been Justin's plan, rather than just an incredibly lucky accident. This way the main story could have revolved around Justin Louis' desperate, deranged attempts to get his best friend back while covering up his crimes and trying to figure out a way to get out from under the serial killer's thumb.

But that's the problem the entire series suffers from - it takes what could have been the relatively straightforward story of a man spiraling into murder and self-destruction while trying to pull everyone down with him, and buried it under so many layers of coincidence and contrivance that it becomes far too preposterous to take at all seriously. It's so desperate to come up with a clever way to keep the story going that it loses whatever emotional core it had.

Even worse, the story leaves so many plot threads hanging that it almost seems like they were planning to do a second season - which is insane, given how contained the story is. Here's a short list of the things that are brought up, but never resolved:

- What happened to the serial killer? He disappears after episode 5, and the teen girls' murder is never solved.
- The Detective's younger daughter thinks she sees ghosts because she's having trouble dealing with the problems in her parents' marriage. She's also absent for the final episode.
- Justin Louis' wife, upon leaving him, gets a job as a bookkeeper in a whorehouse, raising the question: how is there a whorehouse operating publicly in the town?
- Justin Louis' son seems like he's going to be a major character, but the only purpose he winds up serving is first giving Justin Louis an alibi for the night in question, then taking that alibi away at an opportune moment.
- The teens of the town are so screwed up that, just a week after two of their classmates are brutally murdered, they start play-acting the rape/murder in their sick sexual role-playing. This is a plot point that shows up out of nowhere, and never leads to anything.

I can't say that Durham County was a disappointment, since I had no particular expectations for it, but I was still disheartened to see such a workable premise squandered.

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