Reporters have the potential to be very interesting characters for a film or television show: they're motivated to get the "scoop" on events that other people may or may not want revealed, and they're not bound by the same restrictions as police or other official investigators – they want the story, not necessarily proof that will stand up in court – so they can get a plot rolling with their investigations. And since the newspaper has to come out day after day, there's always more news that has to be dug up... the perfect premise for a weekly TV series.
That, at least, is what the Australian series Mercury has going for it, and if you're fascinated by the whole world of journalism and investigative reporting, it may even be enough. The "Mercury" of the show's title refers to the Sunday Mercury, a fictitious weekly newspaper in Melbourne, Australia whose staff, led by editor Bill Wyatt (Geoffrey Rush) is dedicated to ferreting out the most juicy stories, whether they're political, criminal, or human-interest. The "political" direction of many of the stories doesn't make the current government administration very happy, of course... and come to think of it, the newspaper's attention to scandal and corruption ruffles a lot of feathers in general.
Over the course of the three episodes included on this set (yes, only three), we see the large staff of the Mercury chasing down a variety of stories. That's where I found the gap between "idea with potential to be interesting" and "actual execution of that idea" to appear. Mercury's newsroom may in fact be a very realistic one, with a large and busy staff, and with a number of different assignments being worked on at any given moment. But in terms of telling an interesting story, these elements serve as stumbling blocks for the viewer.
And then there's the political element. Sorry, but I really don't have much patience for pseudo-significant, cryptic conversations, chock full of references to other characters whom we don't know. Political intrigue is, in my opinion, fairly difficult to do well, but it's not impossible (look what Yes, Minister did, in a comic vein, for instance). Mercury errs too much on the side of trying to be gritty and deep, with the result that the political threads of the story are difficult to keep track of, and consequently less than captivating.
I found the series' choppy cinematography to be another grating element. The muddled effect of too many poorly-identified characters is amplified by abrupt cuts from one scene to the next; toss in a generous helping of wobbly hand-held camera work and the occasional odd angle, and what we get is a show that seems to be trying very hard for a hard-edged, realistic feel. A little too hard, in my opinion, as the editing and cinematography end up being more distracting than intriguing.
Three episodes are included here. The first, "Without Fear or Favour," runs an hour and 20 minutes; I'm guessing it's probably the pilot episode, though it certainly doesn't do a very good job of introducing the series' characters. The other two, "Publish and Be Damned" and "Dark Horses," are both 52 minutes long.
Sometimes the image looks satisfactory... and sometimes it doesn't. In decent lighting, the picture quality is adequate, with a generally clean and noise-free appearance and reasonably natural-looking colors. As soon as the camera pulls back to a middle-distance or long-distance shot, though, you'll notice the blurriness of the image, which is compounded by the fairly strong edge enhancement that appears in some scenes. Darker scenes tend to have some grain as well as a brownish tint. Overall, Mercury scrapes by with an average mark, but only barely.
The episodes are presented in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 sound is no more than adequate. While there's no distortion or background noise interfering with the clarity of the sound, on the whole it's still flat and not particularly distinct. The soundtrack is at its best when the characters are speaking one at a time in a fairly quiet environment; when we get multiple conversations in a noisy environment, like the newsroom, overall clarity takes a drop.
Given that this two-DVD set contains only three episodes, I was expecting a bit more from the special features than was actually delivered. The main "extra" is on the first disc: it's a 56-minute documentary called "Bylines," focusing on the operation of one of Australia's real newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald. Some information is provided via a narrative voiceover, but for the most part the documentary is just "behind the scenes" footage of the various journalists at work. It's not terribly interesting. What it is, however, is rather tired: while no actual date is provided, from the look of things, it seems to be from the 1970s or early 1980s. Is Australian journalism still like that? How does this relate to the newspaper industry as depicted in Mercury? These are questions that are left unanswered.
The other documentary is a ten-minute piece on Disc 2 called "Today It's News." Like "Bylines," it's not dated or given any sort of context, but from the look of it, this piece comes from the 1940s. There's a bit of curiosity value here in seeing how a newspaper office operated in the "old days" (pneumatic tubes to send printed telegrams to different departments!) but that's about it.
A few minor features are found on Disc 1: a text feature on the Pulitzer Prize, listing various award winners and capsule descriptions of their stories, and a biography/filmography of actor Geoffrey Rush.
My bet is that Mercury does a good job of representing the real day-to-day work of investigative journalists, and for that reason it's probably worth a rental for viewers who are particularly intrigued by that premise. A fondness for political intrigue is another prerequisite for enjoying Mercury, along with a high tolerance for those politics being presented in a rather awkward and muddled style. Yes, that's pretty faint praise, but I was not impressed with Mercury overall; given that the two-disc set only manages to include three episodes and some so-so special features, this is a rental at best.