This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
By and large, Australia is not famous for fantasy. While there are a handful of exceptions, the bulk of our film and television output tends to fall comfortably into the category of kitchen sink dramas, gritty crime thrillers or quirky comedies. Outside of horror films like Wolf Creek or The Babadook, genre fiction isn’t something we’re known for. As such, the recent debut of supernatural fantasy drama Cleverman represents something quite fresh in the landscape of Australian television.
Cleverman is essentially a dystopian superhero story that draws inspiration from ancient Aboriginal myths, all the while exploring contemporary issues such as the ongoing treatment of Asylum Seekers. It’s an odd beast; its genre trappings give it universal appeal, and yet its themes and the source of its story are about as quintessentially Australian as they come. But by and large Cleverman manages to balance all of this well enough to make for a compelling, appealing debut that not only feels fresh in the Australian drama scene, but globally as well. Cleverman’s originality is its greatest asset, despite some hard-to-ignore flaws.
Set in a dystopian futuristic Australia, Cleverman centres on the conflict between a brutal government and a group of “sub-humans” known as the Hairypeople. Possessing super-strength, claws, and lots of body/facial hair, some of the Hairypeople have been escaping their designated slum with the help of smugglers, disguising themselves as humans by removing their hair and attempting to live peaceful lives, something the government cannot abide.
If there is a theme at the heart of the first episode of Cleverman, it’s that things are not what they seem. The first scene shows a bunch of thugs harassing a young woman on a bus, only for the situation to take a sudden and unexpected turn. Shortly after this we are introduced to our ostensible hero Koen apparently partaking in a spot of heroism, until it quickly becomes clear that he is doing no such thing. We watch Koen finding a new home for a family of Hairypeople before swiftly selling them out to the government in return for a lucrative reward. It would seem that this kind of thing is not out of the ordinary for him, and it makes him immediately compelling; his horrible actions at stark odds with Hunter Page-Lochard’s appealing performance.
It turns out that Koen is something of a black sheep in his family. His brother Waruu is a conscientious social worker and his uncle Jack is something known as the “Cleverman,” a sort of Indigenous Australian prophet/superhero with strange powers, powers that transfer to Koen after Jack dies in bizarre circumstances. This sets the stage for a whole new conflict as it seems the wrong brother inherited powers he is not nearly responsible or pure hearted enough to be trusted with.
As you might have gathered, there’s a lot going on in Cleverman, and while the pilot doesn’t focus on answering questions there’s a confidence to its approach that means you don’t spend too much time worrying about the specifics of why what is happening is happening. The world and characters are engaging enough to make for a strong introduction, and if anything the slight uncertainty as to how all of this will come together is part of the appeal. We don’t really know where the Hairypeople come from or how they are connected to the Cleverman, but the fact that there is interest in the answer means that this show is doing its job properly.
Cleverman is also a series with a lot on its mind. The plight of the Hairypeople is a clear analogue for the treatment of Asylum Seekers, especially in Australia, however the comparison is made clumsily and without subtlety. Additionally, the welcome complexity with which Koen is depicted is conspicuous by its absence elsewhere in the show; from the opening scenes the series goes out of its way to depict the government as plainly evil and the Hairypeople as plainly sympathetic. One scene of a character being brutally inducted into a prison camp is so over the top it verges on ridiculous when it should be upsetting.
What is so disturbing about the way disadvantaged people are being treated in certain corners of the world is how governments can dress up atrocities in “greater good” rhetoric, attempting to seem as if they sympathise while their actions tell a very different story. There is no indication of this sort of behavior in Cleverman’s evil regime; the Hairypeople are persecuted simply because they’re “sub-humans,” without any kind of clear reasoning outside of them being a bit different. And while this sort of broad persecution isn’t necessarily unfeasible, it does feel like a missed opportunity for a little more complexity in the situation the characters find themselves embroiled in.
There’s an odd inconsistency between what the series decides to treat with shades of grey and what it depicts in stark black and white. Waruu and Koen are interesting precisely because we’re not yet sure how we feel about them, as is Iain ‘Jorah Mormont’ Glenn’s media mogul Jarrod Slade, a character who could be either altruistic or opportunistic on the basis of the first episode.
The presence of this ambiguity suggests that Cleverman is entirely capable of moral complexity, yet when it comes to the world of the series it eschews it entirely in favour of a clear ‘good vs evil’ struggle. And while the series may think that it is making a point about the Hairypeople not being the monsters people think they are, we’re never given any reason to assume for a second that they’re anything other than slightly different humans, meaning that the audience is already ahead of most of the characters.
Across the board though, Cleverman is solid, entertaining television. Koen is a protagonist who refreshingly invites ambivalence and by and large the mythology as presented is interesting enough to leave us wanting more. While it does verge on heavy handed at times, Cleverman never feels like it is favoring capital-M messages over story and character, and its use of the mythology of Indigenous Australians as a basis makes it feel original in a way that is engaging and geek-friendly. It’s no secret that, with the presence of Glenn and international airings either impending or already having happened, Cleverman is aiming for a more global market than most Australian shows. It’s not the only Australian export to attempt this, but while there seems to be a tendency for other exports to tone down their “Australian-ness” in favor of potentially more universal appeal, Cleverman’s cultural heritage is in its very DNA, and what’s more that many very well end up being the factor that makes it unique. Cleverman is far from perfect, but it’s unlike just about anything else I’ve ever seen, and that’s not a quality many new TV shows have. This is one to watch.
The BBC has acquired UK broadcast rights to Cleverman. We’ll bring you an air date as soon as it’s confirmed.