Set among the Louisiana swamps where nature makes short work of a dead body, "Killing Fields," a new series beginning Tuesday on Discovery Channel, follows Iberville Parish police Det. Rodie Sanchez as he comes out of retirement to try to close the case — the killing of a young woman, Eugenie Boisfontaine — that's haunted him for nearly two decades. A local serial killer — excuse the homely phrase — was thought to be the likely culprit, but the policeman has his doubts.
"My health is deteriorating," says Sanchez, something of a rough old dog. "I'm getting up in age now. I want to solve this." He hopes that two decades of forensic breakthroughs and improvements may yield new clues.
"True crime" has been popular for ages; what's new is the prestige attached to the form. (And there is nothing as prestigious in contemporary television as ... prestige.) NPR's "Serial," HBO's "The Jinx" and Netflix's "Making a Murderer" were national media events, much obsessed over and argued about as they were shown. "Killing Fields" seems to want to join this company rather than that of, say, "Do Not Disturb: Hotel Horrors" or even CBS' "48 Hours" and adds the fillip of being a "real time" ongoing investigation — "recent time" is more accurate — that will go on until Sanchez gets his killer, he gives up or Discovery pulls the plug.
Its sister channel Investigation Discovery is true crime all the time, but this is a first for Discovery Channel, more typically busy with such alternative lifestyle and folks-against-nature series as "Moonshiners," "Naked and Afraid," "Yukon Men" and "Deadliest Catch." It's new territory too for big-name producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, whose own pioneering contributions to prestige crime TV (and serial television) have included NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's "Oz." (Levinson is also the director of "Diner," "Wag the Dog" and many other films.)
Unlike "The Jinx" or "Serial," the reporters are not part of the story. And rather than focusing on a suspect, perhaps wrongly convicted or acquitted, "Killing Fields" throws its lot in with the cops, riding by their side as they go here and there, knocking on doors, knocking around the bayous, bantering in ways familiar from fictional representations of police work.
The setting is exotic, and the characters are colorful in ordinary, workaday ways. The series' one real failing is that it doesn't completely trust them to carry the drama, laying on the high-volume audiovisual tics and tricks of reality television to remind us to be interested and excited.
And yet it's the smaller, unvarnished, passing moments that sell the show — where its particular poetry, and even its comedy, can be found.
You hear it in the speech of the woman who discovered the body as she recalls to the detectives, "I was leaving my now-husband's house early in the morning — you know what I mean," she says, serving up a back story in a sentence. "I smelled her, and she smelled really sweet; animals are earthier." And in the precise way in which the nervous owner of the Alligator Bayou Bar, a tumbledown roadhouse on the edge of things, where the victim had been seen, talks too much: "Thank God for you and you and all the deputies, all the law enforcement that stand between evil and us."
And in Sanchez's own estimation of how police work has changed: "These young guys I'm working with now, they good, but they sittin' in they office on they computers Googlin' up information. I just ain't got time for that."
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)