In Australia: Sundays, 8.30pm, Foxtel Showcase
As we all know, US networks have a marked tendency to copy one another. No sooner is one network commissioning a time travel series then all of them are. Period dramas beget more period dramas. Hangover knock-offs beget Hangover knock-offs. And so on.
Of course, the US isn’t unique in this. For every Doctor Who and Atlantis in the UK, there’s a Primeval and a Beowulf. Australia isn’t immune either. Although last year was a bit of special case, we saw not one but two dramatisations of the events at Gallipoli, and following on from the political intrigue of ABC’s The Code, we’ve had Ten’s Party Tricks and now Foxtel’s Secret City.
But a copy needn’t be inferior to the original and surprisingly, Secret City is easily the best of the lot. Adapted from journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, Secret City has huge amounts in common with The Code but is far better. Also set in and beautifully filmed in Canberra (part of a concerted effort by ACT to get more Australian shows filming in the city), it sees Anna Torv (Fringe) playing a top political journo who’s mysteriously sent some incriminating photos featuring Australian defence minister Daniel Wyllie (The Beautiful Lie) when he was just a lad in China, hanging out with the state police as you do. As Wyllie is surprisingly pro-Chinese, anti-US, there’s the suspicion that he’s possibly a Chinese plant. But who sent the photos and why? And how is it all related to the murder of a young student with similar Chinese links?
In contrast to The Code, which was all flashy computer hacking, trendy Asperger’s kids and running around in the countryside, Secret City is shoe-leather journalism. The first two episodes sees Torv doggedly ploughing her way through documents and interviewing witnesses and her contacts in order to expose the truth. In this she’s helped (and also hindered) by her trans ex-husband Damon Herriman (Battle Creek, Justified, Flesh and Bone), who works for the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and who handles all the techy stuff involving mobile phones et al.
While not 100% accurate when it comes to either newspaper journalism or computing, the show is close enough to reality that it feels real, almost like an Australian version of State of Play. Rather than pseudonymous political parties in the style of Byw Celwydd (Living A Lie), the show is happy to deal with and satirise real parties (particularly the Greens). There are references to real political situations that affect Australia, such as China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, and China and its manipulations are explicitly Chinese, not YA “Asian country”.
It’s also quite subtly written – Herriman’s trans status isn’t explicitly mentioned and is handled sensitively, yet is also a plot point. I’m not quite sure why ASD only has a male security guard – you’d think it might have more than one female employee, wouldn’t you? – but the show manages to handle trans issues without coming across like a piece of ‘social justice’ propaganda.
Despite being a thriller, Secret City is also funny at times, particularly thanks to Jacki Weaver, who plays Labor’s straight-talking, foul mouthed power broker – the Peter Capaldi of the piece – but also because Torv’s newspaper editor is none other than Huw Higginson (for 10 years, PC George Garfield on The Bill) and the American ambassador to Australia is Mekhi Phifer, who hasn’t improved as an actor one jot since Torchwood: Miracle Day. It’s also amusing to hear from his mouth talk of the singular importance of the special relationship between the US and Australia. And, of course, Jim from Neighbours (Alan Dale) is the Australian Prime Minister now.
I really enjoyed the first two episodes; I’m hoping the next ones will be just as good, particularly as we’re at a time of year when we face a plethora of new shows that are rarely worth our time. No word yet on a UK pick-up of the show, but since both The Code and Foxtel’s own Deadline Gallipoli eventually got acquired by UK networks, I’m hopeful.