Reviews, Screen, TV Cleverman review (ABC TV): Australia’s most politically-charged drama By Ben Neutze | June 1, 2016 | Within the first ten minutes of ABC’s new sci-fi thriller Cleverman, we see the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection defend his policy of keeping a race of “sub-humans” locked inside “the Zone” to protect the citizens of Australia. The international community has accused the Australian government of human rights abuses, but the Minister deflects questions with a phrase Australians have heard more than a few times: “I can’t discuss operational matters”. Sound familiar? Cleverman is set in Australia in the very near future (maybe only six months down the track). A group of ancient “sub-humans” known as the Hairypeople suddenly emerge and have to find their place within our society. But their physical appearance — covered from head to toe in a thick layer of hair — and their overwhelming physical strength becomes a big concern for ordinary Australians. Add to that a series of unexplained violent deaths and you’ve got a climate of fear which the government is able to manipulate for its own nefarious purposes. There tends to be stronger relationships between the Hairypeople and Aboriginal people, given that Hairypeople and Aboriginals existed alongside each other at some point during ancient times (the history is a little unclear). And it’s no surprise that Aboriginal people might have a better understanding of the persecution the Hairypeople are facing. The country needs a hero to help it through these violent and oppressive times. But when Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard), a young Aboriginal man who has little connection to his culture, is appointed the “Cleverman” and given supernatural powers, he has little idea what he can or should do. Some of the metaphors are very obvious, but they’re very powerful. The show takes a little too long to explain the relationship and history between the Hairypeople, indigenous people and non-indigenous people, which blunts the impact of the first two episodes. And given there are so many fascinating narrative threads and characters, some tend to get a little lost in the mix. But it’s a politically-charged story, at least as much about the plight of asylum seekers as indigenous people. It’s also visually striking, largely because it takes place in a barely altered and entirely recognisable version of Sydney (“The Zone” is appropriately situated in an old warehouse alongside the train tracks at Redfern). Despite the occasional weak link in the supporting cast, there are some excellent performances, particularly from Hunter Page-Lochard, who delivers a sharp and focused performance, and could easily become the next major heart-throb on Australian screens, and Rob Collins as his older brother. Rarriwuy Hick and Tysan Towney also impress as two young Hairypeople, and there are some great guest spots from Deborah Mailman and Jack Charles. Plenty of writers have now seen the first few episodes of Cleverman and declared the series an absolute triumph, but I’m not convinced it’s as great as it should be; or at least it isn’t there just yet. In America, the world of superheroes has always provided a space for metaphorical discussions about difference, otherness and belonging. Australia has almost never used this prism through which to frame its own constant debates about where people belong. But the fusing of an Orwellian/sci-fi/superhero world with the extraordinary Dreaming stories of Aboriginal people, and contemporary Sydney, is particularly potent. And even if things are a little messy in this first season, the vision of Cleverman and its objectives couldn’t be any clearer. Every writer, director, designer and creator is obviously on the same page and working towards the same goal. Too often Australian drama fails to answer a fundamental question: why are we telling this story? The answer for Cleverman couldn’t be more obvious: because it goes to the very core of Australia’s ongoing struggle with national identity while transforming and celebrating some little known (at least to non-indigenous Australians) aspects of Aboriginal culture. Hopefully Cleverman performs brilliantly and is given another series to find its feet. With six episodes under their belts and a better understanding of how their unique and completely novel idea works, the creatives could make something genuinely great. [box]Cleverman airs on Thursdays at 9.30pm on ABC TV[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.