‘Deep Water’ Is The Crime Show That Every Australian Should Be Watching
This story about Sydney LGBTIQ hate crimes isn't just part of our history; it's part of our reality too.
Crime shows are designed to be unsettling by nature; they deal with some of the darkest and most violent aspects of society, and offer them up to us for our own entertainment. The fear and horror inherent in murder and assault is generally mitigated by the knowledge that the plucky police force is able to solve the case using gumption and forensics, doling out justice for those maligned by criminals.
But Deep Water, SBS’s new four-part crime drama is more upsetting for Australians than your average episode of Midsomer Murders. Inspired by the real-life murders of gay men in Sydney in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of the crimes depicted are still unsolved (and unpunished) to this day.
Great Art Meets Shitty Life
Deep Water follows detectives Tori Lustigman (Yael Stone) and Nick Manning (Noah Taylor) as they investigate the murders of gay men in Bondi, which the killer seems to be facilitating through the use of a gay hookup app called ‘Thrustr’ (a clear if sometimes humorous analogy of Grindr). I was initially worried that the show would perpetuate a kind of moral panic focusing on the dangers of hookup apps, but apart from vastly overstating how precise the GPS function is — they use it to track people into buildings, like a kind of queer metal detector — it narrows its focus on the actual problem. The show is all about the hate bashings and murders of gay men which occurred in the real world.
I want to point out that Deep Water is a great piece of entertainment first and foremost; a show that Australia can be proud of. I loved Yael Stone’s quietly fierce Detective Lustigman, and her excellent depiction of a police officer striving to do what’s right, even without the support of her department. I felt like the Thrustr murderer storyline was glammed up a bit unnecessarily. It moved into some overdone serial killer tropes that juxtaposed needlessly with the already horrific gay bashing deaths. But honestly, it was still enthralling. The plot was full of reveals and genuinely interesting characters. Come for the great story, stay for the deeply unsettling real-world implications.
Without spoiling anything, the investigation of the Thrustr murders brings up questions about a series of deaths and assaults around the same area from the late ‘80s and the early-‘90s, many of which had been signed off as suicides. The detectives uncover up to 80 possible murders of gay men in NSW. The suspects at the time — some as young as 11 and the oldest at 18 — indulged in a spot of what was known as “fag bashing”.
This blood sport, we are told, was a popular pastime during that period, with gangs of kids staking out popular beats and assaulting, robbing, and as we discover, sometimes murdering gay men, an act that went mostly unpunished by the police. The head of one local gang, Kyle ‘Hammers’ Hampton (played by a sinister and charming Craig McLachlan) is still involved in local crime as an adult, and swiftly becomes a top suspect.
The investigation of the cold cases is by far the most interesting part of the show, helped in no small part by the deeply personal connection to the crimes by Yael Stone’s Detective Lustigman. Her brother was a gay teen during that time who also died in tragic circumstances. It’s also a personal topic for many viewers. Many of the real crimes that inspired this story are still coming to light and families of the victims are still seeking justice. If anything, the show cuts down on the severity and scope of this a little.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this on screen. SBS also just commissioned a documentary (also named Deep Water) and a podcast from Blackfella Films which dealt with these brutal murders. While the mini-series does a good job of recreating the fear, horror and loss of both the victims and families of this gay bashing, it’s worth watching the documentary after to find out how much worse the reality is.
The TV show, for example, touches on the deeply negligent nature of the police investigation at the time. With police ranging from disinterested to corrupt, it reflects a pervasive culture of casual homophobia. An attempt at engaging with that is clearly expressed through the character of Chief Inspector Peel (William McInnes), who is clearly more interested in his career than in the idea of justice for potential gay murder victims.
But in the documentary, the full scope of police culpability is revealed. It actually shows that police themselves were involved in gay bashing, as well as covering up evidence of murders at high levels.
Our Ongoing History With Homophobia
A lot of the trauma of this show comes from how recognisably Australian it all is — a point accentuated with its setting at the iconic Bondi Beach. The accents, jargon and faces on-screen are unsettling in their familiarity. William McInnes chomps on Sherbies while watching interrogations. Deborah Kennedy, beloved for being the ‘not happy, Jan’ woman from the popular advertisements, makes a memorable cameo.
Seeing this level of hatred and violence towards gay people — and the social entitlement towards that feeling — in your own backyard is both shocking and sadly recognisable. At the time, society tacitly endorsed this behaviour, whether it was by the police turning a blind eye, the media trivialising it, or through every day homophobic language and attitudes. But the show is also adept at showing that this wasn’t happening too long ago. Homophobia is still a huge problem in Australia, particularly exacerbated by things like the thankfully dead plebiscite, and inflamed by the attitudes of certain politicians. Every Australian should be watching this show because it shows deep injustices that have yet to be righted. There are lessons we still need to learn.
One of the comments I keep seeing people say, in regards to equal rights for LGBTQI Australians is that there are ‘real’ or ‘more important’ issues that we should be thinking about. There’s this idea that same sex marriage is a frippery, a trivial and niche issue, despite the fact it’s fundamentally rooted in the notion of equal rights. It’s symbolic of society progressing past a point, only a few decades prior, where gay Australians were bashed to death and thrown off cliffs. This kind of hatred doesn’t happen in isolation, and the people who suffered from that violence and attitude are still alive; as are the people who perpetuated it.
On a basic level, we’re still looking at recurrences of this kind of behavior — a gang of young people recently bashed a young queer man in Newtown. Violence towards the queer community, especially trans and genderqueer people is still happening every day in Australia. Until homosexuality is normalised on every level — including equal marriage rights — we’re not going to dispel the license that homophobes feel they have to commit violence against us.
Once again — without spoiling anything — you can be confident that SBS’s Deep Water wraps things up nicely and serves out justice. However, Australia needs to watch this and know that in real life, the cases that the show is based on have not been solved, and justice goes unserved. We need to know about the crimes that were committed in our cities and the victims who still haven’t received the justice they deserve. We need to stop the violence that’s still occurring.
Deep Water is available to stream in full on SBS On Demand.
Patrick Lenton is a writer of theatre and fiction. He blogs at The Spontaneity Review and tweets inanity from @patricklenton.