Beware the bucolic locale, those lovely settings have gone lethal on television lately
Ruth Wilson and Dominic West star in "The Affair," a Showtime series set in the quaint beach town of Montauk, but not all is as pretty as it seems. (Associated Press)
Murder mysteries have undergone some pretty twists of late. Not satisfied with gritty city streets and the rumpled detectives who walk them, they’ve taken up residence in some upscale neighborhoods. Placing ugly deeds in alluring settings adds fresh blood to a familiar genre, and audiences can’t seem to get enough of it.
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of people so inquisitive about where we shot and how we shot it,” says “Big Little Lies” location manager Gregory Alpert. The HBO series combines a high dose of treachery with the luxurious homes of an aspirational real estate show.
Adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s book, “Lies” is set in the rich and rocky splendor of Monterey, Calif. Alpert, production designer John Paino and series director Jean-Marc Vallee went up the coast together to scout locations.
“After spending one day, Jean-Marc turned to me and said, ‘We found 75% of the show,’” Alpert says. Adds Paino, “Monterey is spectacular and beautiful, and it can also be a little spooky.”
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Alpert and Paino found and created gorgeous houses that both reflect the characters’ social status and camouflage the messy lives they’re hiding. Water plays a thematic element as well. “Renata, played by Laura Dern, is at the very top of the world, looking down on everyone else,” says Alpert. “One notch down from her is Celeste, Nicole Kidman, who has the absolute most beautiful view — the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean.” The overachieving Madeline [Reese Witherspoon] has the perfect house on the coast.
Showtime’s “The Affair” began its journey on the other side of the country, in another glorious and class-divided oceanfront setting. The murder mystery that kicked off Season 1 took place in Montauk, N.Y., giving cause to visit dazzling spots in the area. Season 3 gave rise to a whole new mystery, but the wealthy beach town remains central to the action — almost a character in itself.
Moving inland, the CW’s “Riverdale” delivers another unexpected site for savagery. The CW already has its share of shows with dark teenage crimes, but this time they’ve ventured into the leafy neighborhood of Archie Comics.
“Riverdale” opens with the shooting death of a high school football hero from a rich, despicable family. Rather than following a detective, creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa lets Archie and the gang take the lead on the case. “By following the classmates of the murdered boy, it allows us to shine a light in the darkest corners of Riverdale,” he says, adding that setting the Archie universe against the criminal aspect is what gives the series its tension.
A noir look further sets the show apart from the CW pack. The show’s diner would fit in an Edward Hopper painting. “Rather than make it hyper-contemporary, as sometimes these shows can be, we wanted Riverdale to be a town that was out of time,” Aguirre-Sacasa says, citing the rich, saturated hues of David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet” as an inspiration.
“Jane the Virgin” opts for the bright light of day for its takeoff on telenovelas. In that soap-operatic world, nefarious doings come with the territory. But Jane’s world is so bright, with a color palette to evoke the Miami venue, that even homicide looks sunny. The show’s gorgeous Marbella Hotel is such a frequent crime scene, the bar should name its specialty drink “Corpse on the Beach.” The deadly story lines are folded into plots about evil twins, double-crosses and of course, plenty of romance.
The apparent double murder in Lifetime’s “UnReal” that capped Season 2 is no mystery to anyone watching: Jeremy (Josh Kelly) did it. But the act was a shock, even for a series about the seamy underbelly of a reality dating show.
Populated by stunning contestants in a gilded mansion and the producers who manipulate them to ever-greater onscreen drama, the show-within-a-show covered up a suicidal swan dive off the rooftop in Season 1, brought on by a producer’s actions. But this time Jeremy acted in the name of saving his ex, Rachel (Shiri Appleby).
Then again, maybe the murder was justified. “We make a joke that if you invite a girl to Martha’s Vineyard and then retract the invitation, you deserve to die,” says showrunner Stacy Rukeyser.
While the killer wasn’t a mystery, it isn’t clear who’s actually responsible. Did Rachel, producer extraordinaire, manipulate Jeremy into it? Season 3 will deal with repercussions. But that’s par for the “UnReal” course. “We have these ‘Oh, my God!’ moments mixed in with these deeper, darker, character moments,” Rukeyser says.
If ratings are any guide, expect more pretty little murders to come. All of these shows are going strong; “Riverdale” was renewed a mere eight weeks after it premiered. Even “Big Little Lies,” a seven-episode limited series, is rumored to be in talks for another round. And of course, “Twin Peaks,” the granddaddy of devious behavior in a deceptively bucolic locale, is back for more on Showtime. There’s no end to the glamorous gore in store.