Action series featuring various stories of organized crime, diamond smuggling, Black Rhinos, the CIA and terrorism in Cape Town, South Africa.
While South Africa has had a rich legacy of local film and television for many years, we can’t necessarily say that it is a market that makes the global entertainment canon easily. In this day and age when every country is making its mark with local productions for a world audience, Cinemax’s (or HBO’s) high-octane action-thriller Trackers comes as a boon for the country where it is set. But is that enough for it to sustain as an independent series?
What is the Story?
Within the few opening seconds of Trackers, we are put right at the centre of the action. The setting is the Karoo region of the Northern Cape, and three motorcycles are on the run. Soon after, a man named Lemmer beats up the bikers who had stopped by at the local pub. Lemmer only stops to strike a deal with Diederik, who gives him the proposal to peddle some illegal cargo from Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Milla Sachan is just out of a marriage and will now have to fend for herself and her son, if she wants to maintain custody of the boy. She gets an unlikely job as a researcher for the investigation bureau. At yet another place, Ismail is spying on a deal when his mobile phone goes up, resulting in a wild goose chase. He gets shot and ends up surrendering to the police (seemingly for the nth time). But Ismail has information on an al-Qaeda operative regarding something truly worrying being brought into the country, which automatically ticks the investigation bureau off. There’s also a friendly game of football being played which may be the next target for ISIS, and the final contraband is revealed to be none other than a pair of rhinos. Are you exhausted and busy looking for the spoiler alert? Well, all of this happens only in the first episode. There are almost seven parallel stories, and the writers have clearly bitten more off than they can chew.
Based on the novel Trackers by Deon Meyer, this TV adaptation certainly hits the right note where it comes to the placement of the series. Lots of stories and subplots intertwine across the series in various parts of South Africa, and for not one minute will you be questioning the authenticity of what you are watching. Being unfamiliar with the original source material though, I am unconvinced by the teleplay. Within the first episode itself, it is evident that these stories are obviously meant to come together even though it is quite unclear when that will happen. However, the pacing chosen by the writers is too fast from the get-go and it really only makes sense when things start coming together in Cape Town. Till that point, there are multiple subplots that are half-baked and uninteresting, and owing to how quickly they zoom by, this pacing doesn’t really help, especially since the show is so action-oriented.
For a show with multiple subplots that run from the beginning, all of them need to have a hook to keep you interested. Milla’s story, in which she is a researcher who ends up working for the PBI seems too convenient. It is also a tired trope to show members of an investigative team with their personal life in shambles in procedurals or spy thrillers. Since this is what the show begins with, we don’t really care that Milla’s abusive relationship with her ex-husband starts becoming interesting by the time the mystery of what her role in the investigation comes together. Simultaneously, Lemmer’s role in the strange contraband is also shown with many plot holes, almost laughable conveniences. The only plot which has a certain gravitas is when the PBI investigates Daoud, the al-Qaeda operative. Makebe, the PBI chief, makes it his mission to capture Daoud just to make the bureau look competent. However, the subplots relating to Nkunzi, a gangster who is in hot pursuit of the illegal cargo (and working for an international group of terrorists), as well as Lucas Becker, a businessman who is revealed to be a covert CIA operative, are all unrealized and rushed storylines. In an ensemble, there are almost too many characters to keep a track of. And since they are all introduced right in the beginning, we assume that all of them, whether primary or secondary, has a significant part to play. The audience isn’t given the chance to care a lot for anyone personally except Lemmer and Milla, and since their stories are the dullest for the chunk of the episodes, I doubt you’d want to stick around post-mid-season.
In true ensemble fashion, the performances on Trackers are consistent and good from all of its cast. The trouble is that most of the characters aren’t given any reason to gain our connection or sympathy. In fact, most of them are completely unlikable. Since we are unable to gather on the motives of many characters till then end (like Lucas, for instance), you will not watch the show with that level of intrigue or investment.
Highlights: If there is any reason to watch Trackers, it is that it is like any generic spy thriller which is high on action and entertainment. There are ludicrous plotlines like a bunch of black rhinos carrying diamonds in their tusks, which may as well be true. At irregular intervals, the show makes some subtle remarks on race and the aftermath of apartheid of South Africa making it a very rooted show, if you are wanted to connect to that culture. It is very fast-paced and energetic and had it been written with fewer subplots, that would have been a favourable point.
Trackers is the kind of show which should have stuck to a central PBI investigation about taking down a band of contraband peddlers and perhaps moved on with forthcoming seasons with newer plotlines. There is already a lot happening, most of which is underwhelming, and the makers seem to want to explore the loose ends in another season, which already seems like a waste of time. The rest of the show works mostly on tame espionage and action thriller imagery and tricks which may seem like a novelty to a local audience, but to an international audience who has had some exposure to the genre both in TV and film, this is nothing new.
Music and Other Departments
Like any other show of this mounting, Trackers is superbly shot with crisp and serene locales of South Africa getting centre-stage. You will get enough of the country’s cultural and landscape diversity in a nutshell. The show has excellent sound and production design but required better editing for a lot of scenes that don't make sense in the overall narrative.
Did I Enjoy It?
Not really. I had trouble keeping up and also caring for what was going on post episode 2.
Do I Recommend It?
If you have nothing better to watch, try it. Else, skip.