Although Season 2 debuted roughly two years after the Season 1 made its quiet impact on TV, it doesn’t feel like an expansive time gap has elapsed. The writers seemed to have designed the characters with a number of past issues that could be furthered or developed up at any time, and Season 2 begins not long after foul Ray Prager (Romano Orzari) has stewed in jail for a while, awaiting the trial date when Sadie Sweeney (Laurence Leboeuf) will single him out as a killer, molester, and a sadist extreme.
Whereas Ray is still using his influence among the police department’s grunt cops – many of them old friends from the days when they would bring pretty girls to a field cabin and engage in rounds of gang rape – Sadie needs a bit of help in readying herself for the trial. Her solution is to break the ban on seeing Ray’s son, Ray Jr. (Greyston Holt), further the romance with Junior, and use him to re-enact her abduction in order to strengthen her nerves when she’s obligated to single out Ray Sr. in the courtroom.
Ray’s buddies at the Division plan to tar her reputation, and maybe give her a big scare to ensure she doesn’t testify. If that isn’t enough, Ray also calls her on the phone, and eventually coerces her into meeting him at the penitentiary, where she sees a physically changed man: once the steel-jawed hockey star from long ago, Ray’s now covered in burn scars from setting himself on fire in a moment of heady remorse for his hideous sins.
Sadie’s father, Mike Sweeney (Hugh Dillon), is also dating her shrink, now that her parents have decided on a divorce. Shrink Dr. Pen Verrity (Michelle Forbes) is initially supportive of father and daughter, but her own family mess – a nasty custody battle and eviction notice from her lawyer / husband Jonathan (Geordie Johnson) has brought up stressors that may reveal Pen as being responsible for neglecting her daughter and perhaps her death, as well as the potential brain-washing and near-drowning accident of son Mark.
Pen’s also harboring a seething jealousy of Mike’s still potent affection for ex-wife Audrey (Helene Joy), so it’s understandable she might physically poison Audrey and mentally warp Sadie in order to keep Mike close by. Nothing is off limits, which is why she makes Mike believe Sadie may have been raped by Ray – a ploy that keeps her close to father and daughter, just in case she wants to create a new family of four.
The characters in Durham County are the most messed up on television, and while their issues, anguish, and self-destructive behaviour is rooted in real life, nobody remains unscathed by the season’s finale. More so than the first season, the writers have not only stuck with the low episodic British formula, but gone for full-tilt British bleakism, which makes the series heavy-going at times.
And yet it’s as compelling as a morbid installment of Peyton Place. Characters are desperate to carve out their own sense of normalcy, and Pen’s no different, but her methodology is rooted in a childhood event in whish she never stopped loathing herself to the bone.
Did she kill her daughter? Is she the monster her husband keeps describing to the police? Are Pen's reflexive actions understandable? What designs does she have for Sadie? And is Mike culpable in the murder of a pretty girl who liked him so much in high school that she went with the boys to the cabin, only to be raped, tied to a tree, and burned alive?
Luckily, some of those questions are answered by episode six, though at times one feels Durham County is a perfect fusion of Twin Peaks, Peyton Place, Dynasty, and Cracker, with peak points of intense misery designed and orchestrated by the restless ghost of Michael Reeves.
Most of the first season’s actors are back, although to smoothen the recasting of Ray Prager with Romano Orzari (Justin Louis was apparently locked into new series SGU Stargate Universe), the burn makeup manages to reshape Orzari’s face into a likeness of Louis – a smart and creative move that allows the writers to use footage of Louis from Season 1 in some vital flashbacks.
Like Season 1, the writing and direction are first rate, and Forbes’ portrayal of Pen is quite chilling: in spite of having nervous breakdowns and scheming to destroy half of the most important people in Ray’s life, she also manages to switch into Professional Mode and be a competent shrink when she’s called on a case. Pen isn’t a schizo; she’s just a messed up creature whose self-preservation instincts are extreme, and yet she’s able to detach herself from her personal crises when she must quietly listen, assess, and counsel others within a professional working environment.
The weird mask that Sadie’s sister Maddie wears is no longer vogue; she’s outgrown the need to hide her face, but she still uses her imagination now and then, although it’s mostly to attempt a reconciliation with her parents. To replace the lost surreal imagery, the series’ producers have concocted a striking main title sequence that foreshadows events in the season, include a few wacked-out dream sequences for several characters.
Most of the writers and directors from Season 1 have returned, although new directors include Alain Desroichers, and Rachel Talaly. Anchor Bay’s DVD includes crisp transfers of the six episode run, and the sound mixes are in Dolby 2.0. [*Note: there may be a pressing issue in which the mixes are in Mono 2.0 instead of Dolby Surround 2.0.]
Extras include a making-of doc, of which the most intriguing aspects concern the season's storylines, visual design, and director interviews. There are no teasers for Season 3, but hopefully the gap between the airing of the next season and its DVD release will be far less, ensuring this gripping, depressing, and engrossing series will have a better chance at hooking more viewers.
Also available: interviews with series producers Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman, and Season 2 and 3 composer Peter Chapman.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan