A corpse on a West Coast beach, a pair of detectives wearing sunglasses, mysteries at sunset… are some of the elements that compound a recently coined genre: surf noir. The term, originated from Kem Nunn’s novels that mixed “dark themes and a surfing setting”, has been examined in the past years by the hands of two American television gurus: Shawn Ryan, creator of probably the best crime series, The Shield, and David Milch, creator of the (no probably here) best western series, Deadwood.
Ryan’s Terriers (FX, 2010) reminded us immediately to the infamous Vic Mackey, a couple of private investigators with serious personal problems, alcoholism and a criminal past, who become involved in a real estate conspiracy to tear down their hometown, the surfer’s village of Ocean Beach, California. Although surf per se it’s not a key feature in the show, the setting with white sand beaches and palm tree avenues, as well as the yellowish photography of the show bring the suffocating Californian climate directly to our screens. The series was sadly cancelled after one single season. In the last minutes of the finale, Ocean Beach was saved and the two buddies drove in their pick-up truck through the boardwalk at sundown one last time.
However, the show that opened up the surf noir into television was Milch’s John from Cincinnati (HBO, 2007) with the help of Kem Nunn himself. JfC deals with… what appears to be the second coming of Jesus Christ in the shape of the dysfunctional figure of John (who claims to be from Cincinnati) and his role fixing the Yost surfer family from another Californian small town, Imperial Beach. In this case, surfing and the power struggles surrounding this sport industry are the main theme of the show, leaving John as the McGuffin that sets everything in motion and, at the end, a Deus Ex Machina (quite literally), a unifying force that brings the family members together when all hope seems lost. The “dark themes” that defined surf noir, here verse about the lower classes, the misfits, the ones forgotten after their shinning time is over: fallen surf stars, prostitutes, delusional persons and thugs. Even the Godlike figure of John looks, in the eyes of the rest, as a mentally handicapped, only able to communicate repeating what others say.
Recently, we have seen Ray Donovan (of the homonymous Ray Donovan) making a trip to the beach to search for his escaped father and, once again, the noir and the blue of the ocean met, tequila and blood mixed, and the sun set on the beach revealing (as the opening video suggests) the motif of this genre: even in the brightest places darkness may appear, all of us eventually fall from the surfboard.