BBC IIi, Netflix
Directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell
Written by Jon Bell, Jonathan Gavin, Ryan Griffen, Michael Miller, Drew Proffitt, and Jane Miller
Music by Dave Whitehead
Cinematography by Mark Wareham
Editing by Simon Price and Peter Roberts
Filmed on location in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
When I was in the U.K. for several months last year there was no escaping the ads for Cleverman. From the windbreak on every bus stop Hunter Page-Lochard’s intimidating stare looked back at you. On the side of every bus, a greatly magnified version of that same steely gaze pinned you down, dark and intense and burning into you with one depthless black and one blazing blue eye. That is something that catches you up every time. The combination of sensual and unknown in that image sends a chill down one’s– well, my spine. That is the face of the Cleverman.
Too bad I didn’t do my research or I would have gobbled up all of the episodes when I was over there, but I saw so many ads I assumed it must be in its third or fourth season and I would never have time to catch up. Plus, I was knee-deep in QI and Taskmaster during what little time I had to actually watch TV. When I came back over to the States, asked people about it and got only blank stares I looked into it. Oh! It’s an Australian show, shown on BBC lli, and Sundance Channel — three things that add up to “not a ton of U.S. viewers will have seen this.”
So, for you, I have taken the platinum bullet and plunked myself down in another sub-zero Starbucks and binge-watch series one of Cleverman. You’re welcome. The review begins now. *ahem* Okay. I had to go get a jacket and I’m seeing the preview night of Split in forty minutes so let’s see if I can finish this. Startinnnnng NOW!
This series is set in the not-so-distant future (as they said on MST 3K), but it looks just like an even more screwed up version of now. In fact, in a world of Brexits, Trumps,
the Alt-Right white supremacists, and your various arsehole deniers of every ilk, this show is frighteningly relevant. To the native peoples of virtually every country since the beginning of time, this is a familiar story. To the Aborigines of Australia it is life since the British Empire decided what a great idea it would be to use their continent for a free-range prison for all of their undesirables. Of course, criminals are people and those with black skin are not people, the thinking went; they were good enough to work for the white people but that’s where it ended. Not that all that much has changed. In the world of Cleverman, the change is all surface, no depth. The Aborigines without the cash or the pull to make it out are stuck in The Zone.
Two simple words: The Zone. Chosen well to sound so ominous, to let viewers know that bad things are going to go down there. The Zone is where the Aborigines live by economy, family, and some just by choice. The “Hairies” live there by order of the law, consigned to area of land strictly demarcated by a wall. Is this starting to sound just way too close for comfort? Everyone going in and out of the Zone must have ID cards and every scrap of data available about them is stored by the Containment Authority (CA). Of course, it’s your basic economically depressed inner-city, which is where all native tribes have been forced into the world over when you think about it. In the U.S. they call them reservations. (And classy places like Washington honour them by naming football teams after the residents!) At least, the Aborigines can come and go; what was that about hairy people?
The Hairies are the living proof of mythical beings that have supposedly been living alongside human for 60,000 years, but have only been “discovered” fairly recently. They are massively stronger, faster, and more agile than humans, just the kind of description that makes those very humans nervous and some scared shitless enough to take action to make certain these superior beings can never gain the upper hand.
There are a couple things you will notice right away about the Hairies.They have no detectable structural facial differences from humans, so not a different path of evolution with more prominent brow ridges or teeth made for consuming food in a different way. Also, their hair is really…crappy…and convenient. For the crapulent part, their body hair is so uneven is looks like they dance too close to a cotton candy machine producing various shit flavours. Characters refer “pelt” of Hairies” but that actually describes the skin of fur-bearing animals. Shave all the hair from an entire Hairy family and one would be had pressed to make a hooker fur for a Barbie. And it is convenient in that it shows in places the producers need it too and retreats when they need more clean skin showing. Not even the wigs and beards are convincing, but they do grow back at an astonishing rate. On some Hairies.
Back to the Cleverman. The title, responsibility, and power are passed on to him by his elderly, seemingly loony uncle just before the man’s death in an attack by the Aboriginal legendary beast, the Namoorodor. Koen West (Page-Lochard) is a shocking choice to virtually everyone in the community, especially his older, half-brother Waruu, who has been practicing to become Cleverman all his life. To see his ne’er do well, half-brother handed the sacred Nulla Nulla weapon and power comes close to unhinging Waruu. Koen is not the hero-type. as we learn in the first…oh…ten minutes of the first episode. In fact, something he does is so loathsome it sets in motion a chain of deadly events that carry through the six-episode series. Now, it stand to remain whether he can do anything to redeem that and some other pretty shameful acts. He’d better, because there is no giving away the Cleverman role and there is no hiding it. That one fiery blue eye, remember? One blue and one brown to represent his white mother and Aborigine father.
The fight to allow freedom for the Hairies and to allow a better life for Aborigines and Hairies living side-by-side may be the main thread, but so many others run through Cleverman you should catch up now before series two starts, and there is definitely a season two coming. There are odd couples on the way, betrayals aplenty (one so heinous it cries out for the perpetrator to die a prolonged, painful death. on camera), even more disturbing hate crimes, violence, myth and magic, and maybe a war between the Zone and the CA. Some faces audiences will recognise right away and, if they are anything like me will think, that guy has never played anything but a villain. Give actors a chance though, especially since this project is one of those rare ones where a native people are actually played by native people. No Johnny Depp *retch* as Tonto.
Two actors truly stand out in an impressive cast. Cleverman Koen and his best friend and partner-in-crime Blair Finch (Bryan Corr) the two young men have demanding roles with a dizzying range of emotions, but are never short of completely believable. And for a friendship with some serious potholes ahead, they make the relationship very real and realistic. It is so easy to believe the two have been making trouble since they were kids. It is also a duo you hope will have each other’s back throughout the run of the show. Blair believed Koen was the Cleveman before anyone else took it seriously and he may be Koen’s protector, which will come in handy as everyone is going to come for someone with that much power.
One last thing: I keep bringing up the Jason Bourne lack of disguise, but it is pertinent here. Native Americans did not believe in cutting their hair. Okay. Hairies do not believe in shaving. But, if you want to walk around outside the Zone or escape detection anywhere, be realistic and pull out some clippers or, even better, start an underground waxing salon. Move your hairline and sideburns back and get rid of those random patches of fibreglass on your arms and torso. And if you are determined to “pass,” trim your damn nails. I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this. Think. Think.
Now, it’s almost 3 am. I have to start writing the review for Split in my head and band that out tomorrow, plan the death of that one character I mentioned, and think about how steamy Koen and Blair are. Falling asleeppppp……..