“Tidelands,” a supernatural seaside crime thriller that gets underway Friday, has the distinction of being the first original production by Australian Netflix, and that is the most distinctive thing about it.
Still, notwithstanding that it begins with an epigram from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ("My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea"), it is not trying for greatness, only the sort of effects that travel well between continents. It's a well-produced B-picture of a series, essentially — a B-plus picture, if you will — in which there is little new in either form or content, but plenty of what many turn to screens for: sex and violence, mystery and suspense, exotic locations and pretty people engaging in random acts of nudity.
We begin at sea, on a dark and stormy night, where a man looking for barrels of "drugs" anchored to the ocean floor meets a woman in a small boat who suddenly appears on his big boat, lifts him off the floor with one hand and gouges out his eyes. She's topless, because why not?
Next we are in a prison shower room, where we meet Calliope "Cal" McTeer (Charlotte Best), a young woman about to be released after 10 years inside for arson and manslaughter — she went in as a young teen — but looking minty fresh all the same. She is attacked by a couple of mean-girl prisoners whom she dispatches so handily you wonder why, after a decade, anyone would think twice about messing with her.
But never mind! The point is we get to see her mad fighting skills. And if you think back to the preceding scene, you might work out something it will take Cal the whole first episode to discover. If you would care to whisper your answer in my ear, I will tell you if you are right. (You are.)
Next, for scenic variation, we are in an Algerian desert where an excavation in an “Indiana Jones” vein is underway and Adrielle Cuthbert (Elsa Pataky), dressed for someplace nicer than the middle of the desert, is exchanging a silver case full of American $100 bills for what looks like a fragment of pottery. (Indeed, this thread of plot will continue in classic Jonesean fashion.) Her obsessive pursuit of a crypto- archaeological item is solidly in the “Raiders” playbook as well.
“If that is part of what I think it is," says the woman on the other end of the exchange, “then you know it was broken for a reason.” (You will know, too, if you hang around long enough.) The wavy forms of the ceramic shard dissolve to actual waves, and we are back in the fictional fishing village of Orphelin Bay — “orphelin” is French for orphan, you might like to know — where the big boat from the first scene has come to shore with an eyeless corpse as figurehead. Dead men tell no tales, but this one is clearly meant to deliver a message.
Meanwhile, Cal makes her way back home to Orphelin, where brother Augie (Aaron Jakubenko) is not immediately welcoming. Like Charlie Brown's sister Sally, all Cal wants is what's coming to her; all she wants is her fair share. But mother Rosa (Caroline Brazier) has taken the surprisingly hefty inheritance left to Cal by her late, lost-at-sea fisherman father and bought herself a bar.
“Some people think there are things in the water,” says hot young cop Corey Welch (Mattias Inwood), whom Cal used to know before she went to prison and figured would become "a poet or a scientist." They are looking seaward.
“Shipwrecks and mermaids — bedtime stories for 5-year-olds,” Cal says dismissively.
Clearly she hasn't gotten the message about the Tidelanders, whom some locals regard as "those hippy weirdos from the commune,” where any night might be orgy night. Ruled with feline autocracy by Adrielle, called “Madame,” they live behind a fence festooned with dead birds and “keep out” signs to ward off the townies. Those in the know recognize as them as the offspring of sirens — like in “The Odyssey,” but with a touch of mermaid — and mortal men. The drug trade, which is as much as we see of the local economy, involves a partnership between the humans and the half-humans, with the half-humans, who have superior strength and sexiness among other special powers, calling the shots.
That nearly all of the major characters are involved, directly or indirectly, in what is after all a dirty business is presented with a notable absence of judgment (and, for that matter, detail); it is a trade whose only victims, so far as we see, are the traders. Cal, whose imprisonment we are called upon to question, is the comparatively good person here — certainly the heroine — though she theoretically has no problem with the drug thing. In any case, this will turn out to be a molehill compared with the mountain she is about to climb. Chosen One might as well be tattooed across her brow.
The story gets spoiler-y pretty quick; suffice it to say that old alliances are breaking down as old secrets are breaking out. Even as a genre mash-up, its elements — the deceptions, the setups, the skulduggery, the sex between enemies, the hidden doors with special keys — are so familiar you may want “Tidelands” to just hurry up and get where you have a pretty good idea it’s going. Madame's crypto-archaeological obsessiveness, which is shared with every "Indiana Jones" villain, becomes a little tiring spread out over a season.
At the same time, it’s never bad to look at, the dialogue is nicely crafted and the matter of any particular scene well-handled — its parts are more than their sum; you are better off living in its moments than thinking about what any of it means. And the series does begin to build up a head of steam, finally, as it heads toward the mayhem of its inconclusive finale. You could drop in and out and come in at the end without losing the plot, avoiding potential tedium and gaining extra time for crafting or journaling, say. Or craft and journal while you watch — it's entirely up to you.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)