What is it about small towns and secrets? Most tiny towns look like they’d struggle to put together a decent school fete, yet in series after series no sooner has our hero set foot in a sleepy village than the bodies start piling up and dark secrets are uncovered around every corner. Now you can add to that long list of creepy towns the picturesque (and fictional) town of Dobrowice, sinister setting for Polish murder mystery The Teach.
Paweł Zawadzki (Maciej Stuhr) is a highly regarded teacher who’s made a name for himself in Warsaw. So why has he come to a small provincial town to teach high school? And in what seems to be an extremely unfortunate case of bad timing, just before he arrives to start his new job Joanna, one of the local high school students, is found dead in mysterious circumstances.
It’s rapidly clear that this is the kind of close-knit town that closes ranks during a tragedy and as a newcomer Pawel finds himself on the outside. But he’s not going to just pack up and go home; when the police rule out suicide he takes it on himself to investigate the murder. Because what the townsfolk don’t know is that years ago he had a relationship with Joanna’s mother Katarzyna (Magdalena Cielecka). Joanna was his daughter.
If this all sounds a little like Twin Peaks, that’s because in a lot of ways it is – if you pay attention you’ll see there are a couple of direct nods to that classic American series in the early episodes. But while it shares some of the same mood and setting, this isn’t really a series that wanders off into David Lynch’s brand of weirdness. Season one of The Teach aired before the recent third season of Twin Peaks, so it definitely wasn’t inspired by that extremely surreal batch of episodes. Instead it takes its lead from what was traditionally seen as the big strength of the original Twin Peaks: that it was a series about a small town where everybody had a secret.
As Pawel continues his off-the-books investigation, he rapidly discovers two things; that people in this tight-knit community don’t want to talk, and that pretty much everyone, young and old alike, has a good reason for not wanting to talk. But the secrets here are more grounded than David Lynch’s demons and portals to strange dimensions, and what Pawel begins to uncover at the heart of this small town are more straightforward but no less sinister crimes like corruption and drug dealing.
This ten-part series has a large cast, and the spotlight shifts from episode to episode as Pawel (and the police) continue their investigations. One week the focus might be on Joanna’s high school PE teacher as the police target him while Pawel tries to prove his innocence, while the next might focus on the town’s sinister innkeeper and son of a local big shot businessman who has some dark secrets of his own.
The Teach doesn’t just focus on the town’s adults. The high school students have their own shady side, with mean girls and drug dealers just part of the town’s underage population out to solve the mystery or keep their own secrets hidden. There’s plenty of clues too (Joanna’s phone has a pivotal role to play) and the series isn’t above fun cliffhangers of the “there’s a scuffle, a shot rings out – but who got shot?” variety.
This kind of series can often slide into camp, but The Teach manages to keep at least one foot on the ground thanks to a strong and varied cast and a series of convincingly small-town Polish locations. It’s a fast-paced show with a lot going on; at one stage animal waste being dumped in the forest becomes a major plot point, and there’s a secret society mixed in there too.
But the locations themselves are well shot and often eye-catching, which helps make it feel like all these sinister activities are happening in a solid and real, if extremely busy, place. Dobrowice might not be real (the series was filmed in three separate Polish towns) , but it definitely looks like a nice town to live in… so long as you don’t mind getting drawn into its thriving dark side.
The Teach is streaming now at SBS On Demand: