Making a fictionalised TV drama out of your country’s most notorious gang war was always going to be controversial. Doing so before the resulting trials had even finished was just asking for trouble, and earned it a ban across the entire state of Victoria. To then air the first savage episodes elsewhere in a pre-watershed 8:30pm timeslot seems staggering in its brazenness, but that’s Underbelly all over.
It’s 1995 and Melbourne is run by the Carlton Crew, a syndicate of gangsters, with the Moran clan at its core. Their friend Alphonse – the self-styled “Black Prince” – carries out a cold-blooded and unnecessary murder that kickstarts a bloody war of attrition across the streets of the city. As the death toll mounts and the police ramp up the pressure, the Carlton Crew don’t realise that their biggest threat comes from within, and when they don’t take the chance to eliminate it, it comes back at them with more force than they ever anticipated.
You simply won’t have experienced a pilot episode so ragged and hectic, brutal and baiting, crammed haphazardly full of anything and everything, and missing no opportunity to tie you into a season of viewing. Early on we’re explicitly told that Underbelly will cover an entire decade-long feud in just 13 episodes, that 30 people will be killed in an escalating tit-for-tat war, that dimwit Carl Williams will become Australia’s most notorious serial killer. It even sets us up with a notion of a leading character then kills him off a few hours in. No, Underbelly doesn’t do subtlety.
What it does do is a hell of a lot of sex and drugs, along with the kind of language that would make HBO blush. Thankfully, it all calms down a little from the pilot and settles into a great back-and-forth rhythm between the main players. And while there’s nothing particularly new about the tale of a crime family losing its grip on the streets, rarely has it been done with such pace, style and venomous bile. With its slo-mo, captioned character introductions and a rumbling, rocking soundtrack, it’s like Guy Ritchie remaking the Sopranos on speed, back before he forgot how to direct. And it’s mostly brilliant.
From start to finish the huge ensemble cast stuns and surprises – mainly because you’ll recognise the vast majority of them from old episodes of Neighbours, Home And Away and Heartbreak High (even Harold Bishop’s son, as head of the Moran clan no less!) I expected the worst, but most are outstanding. It helps that every role has been cast with the necessary age and experience in mind – there’s practically no one below 30, so a pleasing absence of soulless teen models in roles beyond their talents (UK producers, take note).
Admittedly, Underbelly can’t quite sustain the frantic action of the first seven episodes, but that’s an unfortunate side-effect of having to follow real events. A little like The Wire, things often happen in a decidedly un-TV fashion, with the best characters necessarily drifting in and out of the action according to the historical timeline. It’s like reading a novel which repeatedly ditches the narrator just as it hits its stride; the first few times enough Tony Montanas exist to pick up the slack, but towards the end they’re outnumbered by low-life errand boys picking over the scraps. The running and gunning is gradually trimmed down as police stings and prison confessions come to the fore, and as the real-life war didn’t end with a John Woo shootout, I’m afraid you won’t get one here either.
But what you do get – a rare beast these days – is an entirely self-contained drama series, and a fine one at that. Everything is tied up at the conclusion, we learn about the fate of those not yet dead, and the facts simply don’t allow a never-ending slew of sequels. Watch and enjoy. Case closed. (Oh, wait, they couldn’t do a sequel so instead they’ve made a prequel. Typical.)
It’s not The Sopranos. It’s certainly not The Wire. The accents occasionally veer a little too close to Kath and Kim for comfort. But, perhaps because it’s not set in America or London, Underbelly feels like the freshest and most gripping take on the gangster genre I’ve seen for some time – and the fact it’s based on reality makes it all the more horrifying.