Already a giant hit in its native country of South Africa, TRACKERS arrives on HBO Nordic with a hefty dose of hype attached to its name. Directed by Jyri Kähönen and adapted to the screen by Robert Thorogood (leading a team of local writers), the series is the first co-production between M-Net and HBO’s sister network Cinemax, where it will air during its American broadcast run.
Yet while an impressive calling card for Kähönen, who wrings excitement from contrivances with ease, the first three episodes constantly trip over themselves in an attempt to be bigger than needs be. The resulting three hours (out of six) are meandering and convoluted; each twice the length that is necessary.
The main plot follows multiple storylines converging across the country. Milla leaves her abusive husband to start a new life on her own, eventually finding work at a government agency tracking organized crime. Lemmer, a former special forces agent gone off the grid, takes an illegal job transporting animals over state lines, placing him in the middle of a smuggling scheme gone awry. Janina heads the Presidential Bureau of Intelligence, struggling to survive after a previous case went straight to hell, as they track a dangerous terrorist cell operating in the heart of Johannesburg. Quinn, Janina’s second in command, eyes her position with hungry eyes. Meanwhile, Lucas, a mysterious new arrival with ties to shady business partners, is robbed by a local crime boss, Inkunzi, putting him on a crash course with the underworld.
To put it mildly, the series is far too busy for its own good. Every plot has numerous subplots, few of which go anywhere. Milla’s past with her family is at the forefront of the two first episodes, only to be dropped entirely as she dives without any rhyme or reason into a dangerous affair for cheap titillation. Lemmer is introduced like he’s the main protagonist, only to disappear for large chunks at a time, appearing sporadically to offer clunky exposition on his past trauma. The political gaming behind the PBI is reminiscent of better shows like THE WIRE, but fails to find any meaningful traction after it’s been introduced. One character has a late in the game introduction of familial trauma brought in, which doesn’t contribute to character nor plot.
This also ignores the presence of an Al-Qaeda cell operating in the city, which drives much of the initial conflict, and then falls to the wayside despite establishing both a threat and countdown early on. What begins as a TRUE DETECTIVE meets HOMICIDE style procedural quickly begins to spin out to something far grander, before spiraling out of control entirely. In an attempt to paint a mosaic of modern day life in a country as vast as South Africa, TRACKERS aims for grand mythology, but comes off as frustrating. Eventually all the plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away, even as the series treats them as grand revelations.
But, it must be said, these same twists and turns are tried and tested staples of the genre. The only reason they stand out as a negative here is because the series does everything else so well, and so uniquely, that transplanting western clichés to a clean slate feels like a step backwards before any have been taken at all.
The cast, led by a charismatic James Gracie in a shallow part as Lemmer, is uniformly good. They’re mostly newcomers and currently unknowns, which will definitely change as the series releases more widely. Alongside Gracie, standouts like Thapelo Mokoena as Quinn, and Sisanda Henna as Inkunzi easily steal the attention with their natural magnetism. Henna in particular is deliciously hateable as the over-the-top chaotic evil, even as his dialog is awkward at best.
It’s a shame that the clearly talented Sandi Schultz, Avital Lvova, Trix Vivier, and Rolanda Marais don’t get anything of value to do in the first half of the season. Marais, playing Milla, has a wealth of backstory to dive into, yet the series seems adamant in not letting her play any of this in any meaningful way. Her transformation from victim into an investigative mastermind feels abrupt, but even that is more understandable than the mid-season love affair she throws herself in. There’s a chance that this convoluted plot twist in the making is a moot point later on in the season, but getting through it now is already a chore.
There is a reverence to clichés that drives TRACKERS, and that, if anything, is the series downfall. Based on the 2010 novel by Deon Meyer, the setup itself already feels dated. The villains are once again poorly characterized Muslims working for Al-Qaeda; and it’s their presence that colors every part of the sprawling investigation. Sure, the series quickly expands to cover local crime lords and corruption, but the threat of extremism looms heavily in the background. But the world has changed immensely in the last decade and such alarmism now feels downright quaint and dated, as if watching a rerun of a Tom Clancy thriller on late night cable. There’s nothing inherently wrong in portraying endless proxy wars, but considering the last decade, and the location of South Africa with its own historical baggage, one would expect more nuance from the material than what is offered.
TRACKERS is still worth taking a loot at, if only because of what it represents. It’s a major leap for South African productions, easily looking the part of a major Hollywood production. There is lots to enjoy here; from the authentic sounding dialog to the beautiful vistas, captured elegantly by cinematographer Ivan Strasburg.
There’s no denying the series is as frustrating as it is rewarding, and the blunt screenwriting will cause more than a few eyerolls during its runtime. TRACKERS comes recommended with reservations; not because any of it is particularly bad, but because it has the potential to be so much better. But it is also passionate and earnest, and sometimes that’s enough.