'The Kettering Incident’ Is the Best New Show That Nobody Is Talking About
Move over 'Stranger Things,' there's a new psychogeographical thriller in town.
Photo courtesy of Showcase
In Stranger Things, the recent Duffer Brothers Netflix production, a girl named Eleven touches a monster underneath the small fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, and shit gets incredibly fucked up. The US Government has put its hands in a cookie jar they're not supposed to touch, and what's basically the door to hell—an alternate reality called the Upside Down, a shadow world that exists beside this one—is now wide open.
The same door is wide open in Tasmania—it's been in its art for hundreds of years. "They call it the end of the world—and for vice it is truly so," wrote an exiled London engraver in the early 19th century. "Here wickedness flourishes unchecked." And here is where The Kettering Incident, which airs its season finale Wednesday on BBC Worldwide, is set. In The Kettering Incident, Tasmania itself is the Upside Down.
The plot follows Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debicki), who returns home after 15 years to the small Tasmanian coastal town of Kettering. Macy is a doctor in London. She sees inexplicable lights and wakes up in strange places with nose-bleeds. From the beginning, something's clearly weird; and not just with her. Others in Kettering see the lights and have similar nose-bleeds. People disappear. Macy originally left Kettering at the age of 14. Her friend had disappeared in the forest amidst a swarm of alien lights and moths. When Macy returns at the start of the show, another girl disappears. And with the new disappearance, the plot's in full swing.
The Kettering Incident is in large part so compelling a series because of its absolute precision of place and detail. The specificity of Tasmania makes the show at once universal and psychically terrifying.
In the 18th century, the plan was to make Australia a continent that could contain an entire criminal class—the idea being not utopia, but dystopia. In Tasmania, they founded a prison to house the worst of the convicts. Originally called Van Diemen's land, Tasmania had its name changed in part because of its haunted history. When the English arrived, Aborigines had already been living in Tasmania for 30,000 years; settlers killed them off in 75. The few convicts who could escape the island prison ate one another. Where Europeans tried to contain its unruliest citizens in asylums, Australia sent theirs to Tasmania. Foucault writes that the ideal asylum "would be so organized that the evil could vegetate there without ever spreading." But in Tasmania, the evil spread. Early travelers to the island felt nostalgia for England in the island's green valleys, but Tasmania is unsettlingly different. Christmas is celebrated in summer, not winter. The trees shed their bark instead of leaves, and swans were black instead of white. There's something uncanny about Tasmania. In The Kettering Incident, the island easily transforms into a nightmarish place, where the repressed comes to life.
What's hidden can return in strange ways. The Kettering Incident has been compared to Twin Peaks, and in both the disappearance of a teenage girl means the masks start to come off. The people in Kettering show their real identities as lies get told at every level: between environmentalists who live in the trees and loggers at the sawmill; inside the police force; between families; and inside Macy's own head. "The brain is a constant mystery," Macy says when an obtunded woman bursts to life after 15 years in a vegetative state. In The Kettering Incident, the strangeness of the human psyche gets mixed into every facet of the environment.
Co-created by Victoria Madden, The Kettering Incident is monetarily the biggest production Tasmania has ever seen. Madden grew up in northeast Tasmania, and like Macy, lived in London. In time, she wanted to return home. Being so close to Antarctica, the lights in Tasmania can do strange things. You can see the Aurora Australis there. As a child, Madden says she saw unidentifiable lights in the sky. Driving home with her mother one night, she saw them hovering in the darkness behind a cluster of trees, lower than a helicopter but higher than a car. A lot of people in Tasmania see similar lights and accept them. They report them to the local newspaper or they make a call. People go on living. There's not much you can do.
A lot of what's presented in The Kettering Incident is unknowable. Blood cells inexplicably change type. Friendly house pets turn rabid and bite. The nearby forest skulks in toward town. Puddles bubble mephitically, and moss grows inside restaurant kitchens. A girl who disappeared makes a phone call to her mother. Boats crash, and batches of oyster, when they're hauled up, have turned yellow inside with goo. Like Lynch, Madden has stylized the world to be a sinister place. What at first seems familiar over the course of the series grows stranger and stranger.
Every year 35,000 people in Australia go missing. The Kettering Incident takes emotional cues from these disappearances, and the effects they have on families. Many who go missing are mentally ill. And many are never found. Like with Stranger Things, what's interesting here isn't a 30-page booklet that the Duffer Brothers have said they wrote to explain to themselves the science of the Upside Down and the laws of its monster. What's compelling is that the characters have to figure things out for themselves. The Kettering Incident is in large part so compelling a series because of its absolute precision of place and detail. The specificity of Tasmania makes the show at once universal and psychically terrifying.
So much of Tasmania's culture is dying or dead. In 1876, the last of its Aborigines died in Oyster Cove, a settlement just north of the town of Kettering. In the 1930s, the last Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo. Tasmanian devils are now endangered due to an infectious face cancer. Loggers are cutting down the island's old-growth forests and sending them to Japan as wood-chips. The worst convict prison in Tasmania's history is also the site of Australia's worst mass shooting, 1996's Port Arthur Massacre, which led to the country's tight gun legislation. In Tasmania, the ghosts are hard to avoid. Things disappear in our lives. People die. And where we want reason, there sometimes is none. In The Kettering Incident, Victoria Madden has taken the psycho-geographical cues of the place and made an incredibly important work of art.
Hayden Bennett is the deputy editor of the Believer. Follow him on Twitter.