Like a rattler sidewinding through white desert sand, Badlands, Texas moves slowly. The new 8-part documentary series debuted, quietly, on National Geographic last Tuesday, and its first episode creeps toward chilling crescendo with meticulous exposition. If you don't know much about its setting -- Terlingua -- or the crime at its center, do yourself a favor and don't Google it ahead of time. The payoff will be worth it.
For those who do know Terlingua, the program begins as a paean to the ghost town's singular mysticism. Sitting 90 miles from Alpine, Brewster County's only true city, Terlingua is nestled within Texas' largest county near the Mexico border. Little lies along its winding two-lanes besides a cemetery, the El Dorado hotel, several "retro rents" camps with renovated RVs and Airstreams that out-of-towners can temporarily lease, and a handful of restaurants and bars, most notably The Starlight Theatre. Walk outside after sunset, and you'll understand where that bustling restaurant and saloon takes its name. Terlingua is Texas essential. Vast and rugged, and it's as if you could pluck comets straight from endless midnight skies.
Sharing its name with a Jerry Jeff Walker album (which was, counter-intuitively, recorded in Luckenbach), Terlingua is home to a world famous annual chili cook-off, off-the-grid anti-government Constitutionalists, chilled-out castaways who ducked out of mainstream society sometime around 1977, artists, yogis and a host of exactly the type of freedom-seeking characters you'd hope sidle up on a nearby bar stool for conversation landing anywhere outside the norm. As of the 2010 census, it's home to 58 permanent residents. They'd prefer to keep it that way. Still, it's a magnet for nomadic guitar pickers and friendly old bikers. Lovers of sugar skulls and tequila. Pilgrims in search of respite and meaning. Terlingua is special.
And, on Feb. 4, 2014, it became the site of a grisly murder, the subject of Badlands, Texas.
Comparisons to Serial, which sits enthroned as the benchmark for contemporary true-crime storytelling, are inevitable. But, unlike the immensely popular podcast, Badlands, Texas takes advantage of the location's striking visual appeal to lay foundation for its story. Likewise, rather than opening a closed-case, it begins as a whodunit: A popular and seemingly well-liked community member meets a shocking demise outside the beloved La Kiva bar, which closed following the tragedy and reopened this fall. The county sheriff is virtually alone in the investigation, hunting for answers in big land with seemingly endless mysteries.
The first episode drops you into the unique lifestyle of its wide cast of characters, almost as a standalone documentary about the town's ineffable appeal.
While those interviewed frequently allude to the ominous final act, it's not until the closing minutes that viewers understand the power of its insular community.
The ghost town's a part of you now. It's in your bones. The chilling reveal and final frames feel all too personal.
'Badlands, Texas' airs Tuesdays at 2 p.m. CST, and it's available on-demand at nationalgeographic.com.