‘Murder, divorce, arson’: Why this outback doco has become a water-cooler moment11/15/2023
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Did you ever have that thing at school where everyone is talking about a certain TV show? Nothing else seemed to matter except for that one TV show. It’s all people wanted to talk about in class, at lunchtime, on the bus home. If you hadn’t watched it, they may as well have been speaking a different language. You couldn’t join in no matter how hard you tried. It’s the sort of thing that makes you thumb through copies of TV Hits magazine at the newsagents, just so you could fake knowledge about Dawson’s Creek that you didn’t actually have. (Or so I’ve heard…)
It’s actually not limited to school now I think of it. When you’re older, it just happens in the office the same as it did in the school yard. Though we don’t have many “water cooler” shows left any more – no Game of Thrones, no Offspring – appointment viewing that feels like everyone in the world is consuming it at the same time. The communal joy of monocultures gone by.
Barry Sharpe, the owner of the Larrimah Hotel & Pub in Last Stop LarrimahCredit: Warner Bros
You can feel Netflix trying to revive this every time they refresh the “Trending Now” category on their home screen, the algorithmic version of “everyone in the office will be talking about this”. Though Netflix’s actual viewership figures have always been a bit of a mystery, the info they release on the most popular shows globally is always fascinating. It’s also self-perpetuating – if you know everyone is watching a thing, you’re more likely to watch a thing. It’s fear of missing out viewing!
And it’s probably how offbeat Netflix shows like true crime doco series Tiger King and dystopian drama Squid Game ignited the culture like they did. Right now, the limited documentary series Last Stop Larrimah (which was released in October, but seems to be picking up steam now) might be the FOMO show that will dominate coffee run chat for a few weeks if it isn’t already.
Last Stop Larrimah is a two-part true crime doco about a small town in the Northern Territory that is totally unremarkable except that it was briefly the scene of a baffling murder investigation. Larrimah was once the largest military base in the Pacific Region during World War II and after that was a stopover town for travellers. Eventually, people stopped stopping.
There’s no police station there, no mobile phone reception and if the volunteer firefighters are off shopping at Katherine, then a blaze will just burn. It’s a tiny place, where everyone knows each other by name and has known them for decades. “There’s only 10 of us,” one of the Larrimah locals says. “There was 11.”
Paddy Moriarty: his disappearance caused a frenzy.Credit: Warner Bros
Last Stop Larrimah follows the investigation into the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty, a Larrimah resident who went missing with his dog in 2017. Considered “an icon” of the area, but not necessarily for positive reasons, Paddy’s disappearance causes a frenzy in the Northern Territory, one that interested American filmmaker Thomas Tancred enough that he spent five years making the documentary.
The American lens on the uniquely Australian story is interesting. At times the series has the aesthetic flourishes of an American Western. Australia is presented as a dangerous place where you could easily die in the bush and it’s almost a miracle if you don’t. “Every three hours someone in Australia goes missing – and we don’t have that many people!” says one of the locals.
In archival footage of the town and during their interviews, everyone seems to be holding a stubby of XXXX or fishing a cold one out of the Esky. (The opening scene features a local and her “hubby” drinking cans in stubby holders at one of those outdoor glass tables that everyone in Australia has drank at at least once.)
This might all seem quite standard to an Australian viewer, but you get the feeling that the locals, or as The New York Times described them, Larrimah’s “brash inhabitants”, might seem peculiar to an American production.
Cookie, a mellow old local who loves juicy gossip.Credit: Warner Bros
In the end, this isn’t just a murder story, though by goodness, the locals of Larrimah do threaten to kill each other quite a lot. It’s a story about how isolation fosters suspicion, not just of each other but of the government bodies and law enforcement that swarm the town after Paddy’s disappearance. “We’re Aussies mate, and we all hate coppers,” a man named Richard says. “They know that, we know that.”
It’s about the mechanics of small towns; the power struggles, the resentment and how time seems to make old wounds fester rather than heal. Paddy’s suspected murder is one thing, but there’s also divorce, arson and potential puppy murder happening on the outskirts of that crime.
The stage is the Larrimah Hotel and Pub, a meeting place for the community (as well as where they pick up their mail and catch the bus from) and a place for various resentments to reach a boiling point. Last Stop Larrimah uses archival footage of Paddy taken before his disappearance to slow drip information to the viewer. Paddy seems to have had at least three feuds going with his neighbours, who he airs grievances about on camera often and without guile. “What happened with Paddy, that’s been on the agenda for a long time,” says one of the locals.
What makes one of these idiosyncratic TV shows “trend”? Sometimes it’s memeability, like the recent Beckham series that became a bit of a social media sensation. True crime still seems to be a genre that attracts global interest, even more popular when set in an “exotic” rural setting (an explanation of the importance of the meat pie in Australian culture is a key part of the first episode). It could be as simple as the fact that it’s a limited series, requiring less of an investment than IP heavy shows that require a lot of homework.
Last Stop Larrimah delivers on a few fronts. It can be chilling and ultimately tells a story with global resonance: what people will do to protect their way of life.
Last Stop Larrimah is on Netflix.
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