In New Zealand: Sundays, 8.30pm, TV3
As we saw recently with AMC’s Better Call Saul, prequels can be tricky things. You typically only get a prequel to a show if it’s been popular and has a strong fan base, and those fans are going to want everything to line up nicely with whatever’s already been established in the original story. However, unless you want ever-reducing audience numbers, you have to ensure that the prequel is of interest to a wider circle than just the fans.
The show formerly and cleverly known as Westside Story, but which is now presumably for copyright reasons simply Westside, has these two issues to juggle. Now, I’ve already gone into the history of its progenitor Outrageous Fortune elsewhere, so I won’t bother here but suffice it to say, as esteemed New Zealand shows with a huge fan base go, you couldn’t find a bigger one than Outrageous Fortune. All the same, that finished five years ago and wasn’t widely known in its original form overseas – indeed, these days it’s perhaps better known as the show that the creators of The Almighty Johnsons ran before venturing into matters more fantastical and theological. As a result, there’s a potential new audience for Westside that never saw the original and who might be looking forward to Rachel Lang and James Griffin’s latest production.
So will the story of safecracker Ted West, his wife Rita and their son Wolf, the future prison-bound patriarch of Outrageous Fortune‘s West family, stand on its own two feet or will it simply be a piece of fan service from a creatively bankrupt team that have run out of ideas?
I’ll tell you after the jump.
From Rachel Lang and James Griffin, the award-winning creators of Outrageous Fortune, Westside will take the West family’s large and loyal fan-base on a journey back to where it all began.
This six-part series tells the story of legendary safe cracker and career criminal, Ted West and his fire cracker of a wife, Rita. Combining real events and the rich folklore of the West family and associates, this is rollicking history, and a tempestuous romance, set at a time of great social upheaval.
Westside is a prequel to Outrageous Fortune. Over six seasons between 2005 and 2010, Outrageous Fortune established itself as New Zealand’s most successful television drama series. A consistent ratings winner, the show achieved cult status and critical acclaim at home and abroad and to date has won more than 50 awards.
Is it any good?
Despite knowing shamefully little about Outrageous Fortune, its characters and its plot, I have to say I did enjoy Westside rather a lot. It’s a fun and smart crime comedy-drama in a great period setting, with some good characters.
Now I’ll readily admit that almost certainly, a lot of references to the original show went over my head. For example, when a certain house is unveiled in the episode…
…had it not been for pretty much the entire mise en scène shouting “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MOMENT” at the viewer, I’d have never have realised how hugely important it was.
So with my level of knowledge established, you’ll understand that my enjoying the show despite my ignorance means that the average Outrageous Fortune fan must be in some sort of state of nirvana while watching Westside.
For the rest of us, though, there’s a whole lot to commend. Tonally, the show is a sort of combination of The Almighty Johnsons, Life on Mars and even Widows, with safecracker Ted West (David de Lautour) coming out of jail after being grassed up to the cops during a robbery involving some Krugerrands. He’s reunited first with his wife Rita (Antonia Prebble reprising one of her roles from Outrageous Fortune) and son Wolf, and then with the other members of his slightly stupid gang.
However, in his absence, everyone’s lives have moved on, with Rita raising Wolf alone and having an affair with her Welsh neighbour, while the gang has turned to simple robbery and knocking off TV sets. So it’s time for Ted to put things right, pull off a few jobs the proper way – and find out who took his Kurgerrands and grassed him up.
Many of these questions are answered by the end of the episode, some in surprising ways, so it looks like most of Westside is going to be less about setting up mysteries for the audience than seeing what happens when Ted and others find out the answers for themselves. The enjoyment largely comes from the various characters and their antics, whether it’s Ted’s schemes and pride in his increasingly criminal son, Rita’s continual plotting and treachery, the gang’s laddy stupidity or the simple thrill of cops and robbers, albeit quite nice robbers and quite gentle cops.
There’s also the 70s look and feel to the show. This is slightly ‘time touristy’, with the show delighting in everything from old cars and fashions through to pineapple hedgehogs being served at dinner parties; the plot does its best to reference events of the time. But all this is far better handled and more enjoyable than the egregious “Look at this! We’re in the 60s!” crimes committed by NBC’s Aquarius, for example, making the viewer feel as delighted to be back in the 70s as Sam Tyler eventually was.
With engaging performances from de Lautour and particularly Prebble, who’s far more likeable and sparky here than she was in The Blue Rose, Westside is a fun show, whether you’ve seen Outrageous Fortune or not. I’m tuning in for the rest of it.