In Australia: Thursdays, 9.30pm, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Three. Available later this year
When making scripted television, broadcasters around the world have a choice whether to make their programmes with either local or global appeal in mind. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk – make the programme too locally focused and unless you’re in the US, chances are no one outside your home country will know what you’re talking about so won’t watch; make it too globally focused, and it’ll be too homogeneous, appealing to no one rather than everyone.
After years of only managing to sell soap operas and shows involving improbably intelligent and helpful animals overseas, modern Australian television is slowly finding ways to tread this tightrope, with shows such as Rake, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The Code, Serangoon Road and The Doctor Blake Mysteries finally finding success both in Australia and abroad. But until now, Australia hasn’t managed to find a way to make one of its most pressing local issues work in a globally-targeted drama (or even in a local drama, judging by the limpness of both Redfern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street). But with Cleverman it might just have done it.
The Australian Aboriginal peoples have the world’s longest survival culture, with more 60,000 years of stories known as ‘The Dreaming’. But more or less ever since the British landed in Australia, they’ve been in decline, and have been treated abysmally in many ways. Addressing the legacy of this treatment is likely to take generations.
Cleverman marries modern Australia’s ‘Aboriginal problem’ with The Dreaming to give us something unique. Set in the near future, it plucks from the Dreaming ‘the hairies’, a race of people who are like humans but super-strong and have their own language. They have co-existed with but have remained unknown to humans for 80,000 years.
Mimicking the historic treatment of Aborigines since British colonisation, Cleverman has these hairies confined to ‘the Zone’, which has third-world-level living conditions; if they leave, they face systemic discrimination and are abused, separated from their children (the Stolen Generations) and banned from speaking their own language (the Aboriginal Gumbaynggirr language). Some choose to assimilate or hide among humans by shaving off their extra hair, speaking English and acting like humans.
So far, so District 9 and numerous other bits of sci-fi. Indeed, the first half of the first episode of Cleverman is very generic stuff and is often a bit laughable, with all the talk of hairies, ‘rugs’ (human insult for hairies), ‘shavers’ (hairies who remove their hair) and so on. There’s a slightly dull problem involving two brothers (Hunter Page-Lochard and Rob Collins) and their uncle (Jack Charles), who wants to have a word with them about something, but they’re too busy off doing criminal things, like running underground fight clubs for hairies or shopping illegals to the cops.
Charles also has some kind of agreement with slimey corporate mogul Iain Glenn (best known here from Game of Thrones but very big Down Under thanks to the success of RTÉ Ireland’s Jack Taylor series there). He appears to want to help the hairies against the government’s wishes, but more likely has his own best interests at heart.
Then, almost exactly mid-way through the episode, it flips everything round and becomes a lot more interesting. The show gets its name from the Aboriginal idea of the Cleverman, who is a conduit between the real world and the Dreaming, which is also a spiritual realm where past, present and future come together and all manner of strange beasties live. Charles is the current Cleverman but his time is ending and he’s going to pass on his responsibilities to one of his two nephews. But which one…?
Once the new Cleverman is selected, we get the arrival of the supernatural in this slightly limp sci-fi analogy and everything improves considerably. The stories of the Dreaming start to feature more prominently, people start getting some very strange superpowers, the dead start coming back to life and heart-eating creatures descend from the sky.
I almost gave up on the show after its first 30 minutes, so I recommend you have patience if you’re going to watch it, since it does improve in the second half. It’s still not exactly faultless*, and the female roles are almost non-existent at this stage. But it will offer you something significantly different from other shows, with a uniquely Australian flavour, while still managing to speak to global audiences.
* Here’s a game you can play called ‘where’s his dick gone?’ There’s a sex scene at the end, during which the man passes out. Then someone comes in to help but doesn’t realise they’ve been having sex. And thus the game begins…