Sundance’s Dead Lucky is a tangle of plot threads, almost all of which are either underdeveloped or overly intricate. The four-part miniseries, set in the seedy underbelly of Sydney, Australia, follows Grace Gibbs (Rachel Griffiths), a veteran senior sergeant in the police force, as she hunts a notorious killer, Corby Baxter (Ian Meadows), and, in a possibly unrelated case, attempts to find a missing girl. And as it progresses, the series becomes even denser with subplots surrounding Grace’s tense relationship with her ex-husband and the romantic side stories between other members of her department.
Grace is a feminine inversion of the most pervasive and typically masculine trope in crime drama: the hotheaded cop with prodigious investigative skill. Beyond that twist on a familiar figure, though, the rest of Dead Lucky’s story offers little fresh perspective, even in regard to the myriad societal ills that it touches upon, which range from domestic abuse to labor exploitation. Instead, the series resembles a four-hour episode of Law and Order: SVU, bounding through plot until the cops eventually catch the stock bad guy.
The bad guy in this case is a man whom Grace calls “the worst kind of killer.” Yet while he may be a prolific murderer, nothing about Baxter, from his predictable tattoos to his leering, macho demeanor, is particularly notable. He kills indiscriminately, but Dead Lucky does little to explain what motivated him to go on his killing spree. His importance is amplified only because he once killed one of Grace’s junior detectives, which makes it personal for the sergeant—just one more cliché in a series that can’t seem to avoid them.
As its plot careens through various striking Sydney locations, Dead Lucky is buoyed by Griffith’s performance. She portrays Grace’s anger with quiet nuance, appearing to operate at a smolder—more exacerbated than angry most of the time. Despite the fact that Grace’s superiors constantly frame her as a loose cannon, she seems to suffer more from grief than indiscriminate rage. As a result, her dynamic with her commander, Richard (Rhys Muldoon), who seems to mistake her investigative passion for tempestuous female emotion, is one of the series’s more compelling side stories.
The subplots that aren’t directly related to Grace feel rushed despite Dead Lucky’s lengthy running time. Ba-Lin (Xana Tang), the girl who goes missing, belongs to a cramped house full of international students, which the series mines in rote fashion for examples of specific cultural anxieties. Worse, the character portrayals within the house are quickly overshadowed by—or haphazardly integrated into—the series’s breakneck crime plot. Take, for example, all the time that Dead Lucky spends referencing Ba-Lin’s strained relationship with her traditional Chinese family, but without introducing her parents or showing a glimpse of their relationship in action. Her familial friction becomes a bit of throwaway fodder once Ba-Lin’s life is in danger. Even less effectively, the series uses the girl’s nationality and immigrant status to explain, in an extremely convoluted series of events, how she first came into contact with the Sydney underbelly.
At least two breaks in Grace’s case are the result of her subjects behaving in a senseless fashion, with one claiming guilt for no apparent reason and another committing a crime with no discernible motive. If Grace can’t comprehend each person’s actions, it’s because both developments are screenwriting devices that exist only to propel Dead Luck’s plot forward.
Throughout, slick shots of Sydney’s architecture are juxtaposed with glimpses of the city’s seedy corners, creating a vivid backdrop for Grace’s investigation. Other scenes have an artificial sheen that recalls a soap opera or a cheaply rendered dramatization of real events in a sensational documentary. Such inconsistent cinematography is indicative of the confused vision at the heart of Dead Lucky, a formulaic exercise that aspires to emotional resonance. While it occasionally succeeds, specifically with regard to Grace’s characterization, the series mostly gets bogged down in arbitrary plotting and leads to a climax that manages to shock only because it’s so unbelievable.