It’s not as if the collaboration between Red Arrow International and SundanceTV marks our first foray into television from Down Under. Farscape and The Almighty Johnsons aside, Cleverman, premiering June 1st on Sundance, turns any preconceived notions we might have about the show’s premise upside down and then assaults our sensibilities with a disturbing narrative of prejudice, the supernatural, and fractured families.
From the start we’re reminded that the “Aboriginal people are the longest surviving culture on Earth with 60,000 years of stories known as The Dreaming.” The Cleverman oversees this realm “inhabited by incredible creatures and spirits” and moves about the past, present, and future.
Let me be clear; this is not a light-hearted supernatural tale, and while your first inclination may be to turn away at some of the disturbing images, the characters and mysteries that weave in and out of the first two episodes negate any desire you may have to stop watching. Set in the near future, the six-episode series follows mythological beings known as Hairy People (Hairies) who have surfaced after 60,000 years and possess superhuman strength to go along with their unusual appearance. Shunned as outcasts, they make easy targets when the government struggles to find the killer in a number of mysterious murders. But therein lies one of the initial plot points – does the government even want to find the true killer, or is Geoff Matthews (Andrew MacFarlane), Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, content to allow blame to fall on the Hairies? And if they’ve been around for 60,000 years, why do they suddenly become visible six months prior?
Initially, the series follows three families as the hysteria generated by the government and the media reaches a boiling point. Boondee, (Tony Briggs) husband and father to three, is willing to shave to assimilate despite his cultural connections. Araluen (Tasma Walton) plays Boondee’s wife, and after the men, women, and children are separated by the Containment Authority, she volunteers to go with a wealthy woman saying “it doesn’t matter” what it is she’s agreeing to do. Djukara (Tysan Towney) appears as the hot-headed oldest son, imprisoned with his father, and daughter Latani (Rarriwuy Hick), like her father, is willing to attempt to blend in, but a tragic event during their apprehension has colored her view of the world. Left on her own, Latani has her faith in mankind temporarily restored.
Though it’s probably a stretch to compare Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) and his older brother Waruu West (Rob Collins) to Cain and Abel, it’s clear at the start the two brothers possess radically opposing feelings about the Hairies. One runs a scam to make money by turning them over to the Containment Authority, while the other is the self appointed leader of an underground community in which both humans and Subbies (sub-human) more or less peacefully co-exist.
However, when the brothers’ Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) mysteriously dies, his position as Cleverman passes to one of the brothers. Clouding the issue, is Uncle Jimmy’s personal relationship with Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen – Game of Thrones) owner and CEO of Slade Enterprises, a conglomerate that includes a major television network. Nothing is earned easy in Cleverman, and we immediately wonder whether or not Uncle Jimmy chose the wrong brother and why he apparently trusted Slade.
It may be easy to dismiss Cleverman as another liberal attempt to bash the power elite who want nothing more than to remain in power at the expense of the underclass, and while there is some truth to that, show creator Ryan Griffen gives us so much more. When 71-year-old Virgil tells Latani “I know what you are, and I don’t care,” the degradation and brutality heaped on the imprisoned Hairies becomes a bit easier to bear because we suspect there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Fans of District 9 and James Cameron’s Dark Angel will recognize familiar themes, but this is by no means a rehash of tired television tropes. Our scope of reference is divided into The City and The Zone, the later houses the poor and the Hairies and requires ID to pass through the heavily guarded checkpoints. But Waruu watches over an uneasy peace between the Hairies and the destitute proving that coexistence is possible. The nobility of Waruu’s mission to get the truth to the public about the government’s mistreatment of the Hairie’s gives us pause, and it’s the continued gray area motivations of the characters that draw in the viewer.
When Virgil tells Latani, “You have to decide who it is you want to be,” we must ask ourselves the same question. And Cleverman must decide what it wants to be. Is it social commentary? Does it explore the supernatural and planes we don’t see? Does it force us to examine the dark side of human nature? Yes, it does. But as the genre television landscape continues to grow in scope and diversity, SundanceTV’s entrance into the market presents fans a show well worth the time and emotional investment. It won’t be easy, but viewers will be rewarded.
Photo credit: Lisa Tomasetti/SundanceTV/GPTV/Z