Reviews, Screen, TV

Cleverman review (ABC TV): Australia’s most politically-charged drama

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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]

23 responses to “Cleverman review (ABC TV): Australia’s most politically-charged drama

  1. Wow Ben, you really know how to damn something with faint praise. I hope this show is better than the trailer, which manages to reach an ‘Oh-My-God’ level of cheesiness.

    Does it have the obligatory marital infidelity subplot, where everyone screams at each other and waves their arms around? Do our screenwriters have to turn everything into a domestic melodrama as a requirement for membership of the Writers’ Guild?

  2. Sorry Ben Billy The Fish is right. The question is not why are we telling this story but why Australian television writing very rarely raises itself above soap and gets lost in poorly constructed and incomprehensible narratives. ABC dramas of late all have this problem with Janet King the latest overblown addition. I suppose in a small country with not a lot of drama produced you could excuse it but the Scandinavian dramas contradict this argument. Why have they had such success and our drama in most part remains pedestrian with good production values let down by poor writing? I hope Cleverman rises above this but remain sceptical.

  3. I didn’t really have a problem with Janet King till Micallef mercilessly sent it up, as he did with Miss Fisher last year. I’m only just getting into Australian ABC drama again, Jack Irish and Janet King were good, and Rake is fantastic. While noone wants Neighbours or Home and Away on the ABC, human drama, domestic or otherwise, is essential to any drama rise above mediocre unimaginative bilge. It doesn’t always work smoothly but these programs hold their own against US and even UK imports. Glitch was a masterpiece and hopefully will return this year- I try not to make any judgement on a show till seeing it, but Cleverman looks promising in the promos.

    1. Glitch started out OK, but then degenerated into standard soap opera “who shagged who” cliches. It could have been a lot better.

  4. Interesting that the ABC decided once again to go with a left of centre drama highlighting barely disguised issues of consequence to a limited section of the Australian population.

    Too bad they couldn’t do a hard hitting story about something equally of interest to both sides of the political spectrum, maybe something on the counter-terrorist police that shows most Muslims opposed to violence, that the police profile on the basis of race and religion and that sometimes those tactics are justified, as the majority of terrorist acts carried in the last decade are by Islamic fundamentalists.

    You know, something that poses both sides of the argument about surveillance and encryption and border protection the like, so that the viewer is left with the thought, much as in Captain America: Civil War, that both sides of the argument have reasonable arguments about why they think the way they do. You may not agree with it but you can understand it.

    Is that too much to ask of ‘our’ ABC? It looks like it.

    1. I disagree, perhaps that’s another TV series but I would not wish it to replace Cleverman. It is of interest to more than you realise and I as part of ‘our’ ABC say it has plenty of merit. I am very keen to watch the rest of the series and I applaud the ABC for airing shows that don’t always please ‘everyone’.

  5. Oh no ABC, you didn’t. Creating a dystopian- fictional story set in a quite real Australian near-future context to charge the issue of aboriginal identity within the Australian society with inflammatory unrealistic scenarios and feeding the divisive agenda orchestrated by certain groups…how ABC is that!!!

    Love how you are almost portraying them as planet of the apes characters!…a bit politically in-correct maybe? But “the zone” is so gentrify now that is almost being renamed “North Waterloo”, you should have filmed at Emu Plains!

    The greatest divide is in the mind of those wanting to perpetuate a division

  6. It’s been hard to avoid the hype about Cleverman and its political context. But I’m glad I read some of it, otherwise, from the first ep last night, I wouldn’t clear about what was going on. And the Hairy People aren’t , well… hairy enough…. It wasn’t bad, I’ll stick with it, but not a patch on some of the other political dramas around, past and present. To “ABC-types” (yes, me) who like this sort of stuff, I’d suggest forgetting about the very silly and overly PC “Janet King”, and tracking down something with a little more nuance.

    Try HBO’s “Show Me A Hero” (from the creator of “The Wire”), about a low income housing scheme in Yonkers, New York and the very nasty Nimby politics that swirled around it.

    Or more far-fetched but still intelligently provocative, there’s Netflix’s “Occupied” set in a near-future Norway. It’s about what happens when a green government is elected and tries to shut down the country’s oil production. I’m guessing a Janet King-style drama would show same sex couples with their families pluckily adapting to the resulting adversity by yelling at each other and then riding bicycles around their gentrified inner city streets. But that’s not what happens here. Its geo-politics may seem far-fetched – they are, and the thriller aspects are overplayed. But it’s still a sobering version of what, in reality, would happen if “our ABC”-types’ green policies were ever implemented.

    1. But Teddy, the whole of Austrailan TV is based on “families pluckily adapting to the resulting adversity by yelling at each other.” Without people yelling at each other there would be no Australian TV at all.

      The bad news is that if you don’t like Janet King, then there’s another cheesy PC legal drama coming soon to the ABC – it’s called Newton’s Law. Can’t wait.

    2. I’m confused. Is Cleverman a political or a scifi? If political it should ditch the funny lion people and make asylum seekers the heroes. If it’s scifi/fantasy and needs to portray ancient races from aboriginal dreaming it still shouldn’t have lion people. As far as I know lions were never part of the Australian landscape. I’m afraid the first episode left me feeling as though I was looking at a national Geographic photograph. I could see there was drama and tragedy before me but it didn’t engage me on an emotional level. Good show for teen TV.

  7. I loved the first episode, and it made me go look up ‘Cleverman’ in aboriginal law and I discovered things about them, and one who was in the botany bay area when white settlers came here. I couldn’t find much about the hairymen, but I will keep looking. The hair on the body of the one who stripped down to fight didn’t look real, but I love their hair and its many colors, and they do look real to me and very beautiful. I think the person who said something about planet of the apes is seeing things oddly, they didn’t look anything like apes maybe that person didn’t see all the emotion and layers in those scenes. Maybe the hairy people look like this in lore?

    I would like more ways to understand the lore but iIknow unless you have been initiated into adulthood you cannot learn the lore, sio all we none indigenous people can learn is the children stories..

  8. No problem with the production or the performances but this is such politicised tosh. The writers must be arrogant beyond belief to think this Australians are so well-trained and stupified by years of misrepresentation of Aboriginal culture or will be too polite to mention the obvious malignant reading of this over-the-top political parable. The errors are far too numerous to point out but they are encompassed within the overarching conceit so no need to bother. The story is about three groups: lying, deceptive, sadistic or exploitative whites, a clean and educated Aboriginal sector from which the heroes come, and the wild men and women, who speak faked Aboriginal languages, whose role is to be saved from the whites. For the last two, it is impossible not to read the educated indigenous elite, or the ‘yellafella’s’, descended from whites, who used to hold authority over the fullbloods on behalf of the white bosses, and the mostly fullblood remote people. Now read on …

  9. I’m trying to like this show. I really am. I was thrilled when I found out there was going to be a sci-fi show based on an aspect of Aboriginal mythology and an indigenous hero. However, within the first few minutes, it failed one of the hallmarks of great science fiction/fantasy – if you are going to make a political statement, don’t beat people over the head with it. Draw such strong parallels and create characters we care about so that the viewer can’t help but make the connection themselves (e.g. District 9).

    The writing is underdeveloped (as it was in Glitch). While the acting is often over the top, I reserve judgement on the actors as I have seen many of them do far better work. Perhaps a combination of poor script and misguided direction?

    However, the worst sin it commits is that it is boring. At the moment the only characters I give a rat’s arse about are the Hairies. Every one else is a waste of space including the titular Cleverman. I feel I’m watching because it is politically incorrect not to watch. That may soon change.

    As Victor pointed out, far smaller countries than Australia produce quality shows, ones the rest of the world watch and emulate. We need to stop congratulating ourselves for half-baked ‘she’ll be right’ work and rise to the challenge of producing world class shows – I think we can.

  10. After watching Episode 4 last week, I realised that the plot has probably been inspired by Damien Briderick’s short scifi novel “The Dreaming Dragons”.
    If so, we can expect intelligent dinosaurs and their time travelling technology being coopted by military, and it getting out of their control.

    If I’m wrong, then I haven’t spoilt anything for anybody.

    If I’m wrong, then what a pity this series isn’t using those ideas, because so far, Cleverman has been pretty dreadful so far as either science fiction OR political comment.

    It fails straight away by being unconvincing as a scenario.

    If a new species of human suddenly appeared out of nowhere today, they would NOT be marginalised and discriminated against. Especially in a developed country like Australia.

    Also, trying to conflate our dealing with an illegal migration problem and how Aboriginals are treated is just ridiculous, and is racist in the way it depicts people of European descent.

    It ends up just trying to say that ‘all whiteys are racist against other peoples’ renvidence

  11. Cleverman is annoying. I’m sick of having politically correct ideas rammed down my throat. As a white person, I’m sick of being portrayed as racist, stupid and scared. The script is arrogant and simplistic. Its another sad example of the kind of thing that gets writers good marks in the rarified air of politically correct universities, then falls on its face in the real world.

    1. Ramming down your throat?!
      Go outside and do something… Choose another program.. No one is forcing you buddy ffs!

      “The lady doth protest too much”????

  12. I really liked this.
    Ambitious beyond its budget perhaps… And perhaps the stories are not really new… But they’re classics told since time immemorial … Kane &Able; Achilles; Moses; on n on n on!!!!!
    It is SO refreshing to have these stories put into a modern context in a local place where we can maybe learn the lessons that as a culture we really still need to learn.
    Thanks to all concerned

  13. FAR OUT we have a lot of opinionz here about what shows should be on our screens. If you so damn clevah, go pitch your oan show fellaz.

  14. Watched the show. Loved the show.

    Read the reviews. Still love the show.

    Can’t wait for season two!

    Decide for yourself. If you love it, watch it. If you don’t, go do something else ????

  15. Too-obvious melodrama. Done countless times before and better. Oh! It’s the star-bellied sneetches! Wait, the Hairypeople have no stars upon thars.

  16. I’m thoroughly fed up with ‘Aboriginalism’ being stuffed down my throat. This one really takes the cake. It wouldn’t last ONE episode on commercial TV. Both the ABC and SBS are on a hell bent crusade to elevate the status of the black man. The realities of life are just so different to that portrayed by our public broadcasters. NOBODY will be sacked as the ratings for this joke of a program nose dive. Politics should be kept out of the whole thing.

  17. Could happen tomorrow, very close analogy to the real world. Scary comment on media manipulation and politics. Watch the telly it’s hapening right now!

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