In Australia: Mondays, 9pm, Foxtel
In the UK: Available on Netflix
Secret City was one of TMINE’s top shows of 2016. A marvellous return to the genre of ‘dogged journalist investigates political cover-up at the highest level’, it was every bit Australia’s answer to State of Play and deservedly earned worldwide success through Netflix distribution.
Starring Anna Torv as political journalist par excellence Harriet Dunkley, it also had a lot to say about Australia’s political positioning with respect to both Asia and the US, something that proved to be very timely.
The first season was reasonably self-contained, with a downbeat ending that could have left the show “one then done”. However, that Netflix success means that Secret City is back for a second season.
But when is a second season not a second season? When it has almost nothing in common with the first season.
Under the Eagle
The first season was based on two books by former Australian journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, but the second season is entirely original, with Uhlmann and Lewis on board as mere consultants.
Torv returns as Dunkley, now released from prison following the events of the first season. But who in Canberra will hire an ex-con?
Soon, however, promising politician Danielle Cormack (Fresh Eggs) is hiring Torv ostensibly as her press advisor but in reality to found out what really happened when a family house in her constituency was blown up, apparently by the family’s terrorist son. Torv quickly discovers that not only is the son innocent but the government might be involved. But she’s also distracted with helping former cellmate Louisa Mignone (Rake), who’s soon on the run after being spotted near the body of a murdered government minister.
A clean sweep
Season 2 basically dumps the entire cast of the first season, as well as anything journalistic in its trappings, to give us a brand new set-up linked only tenuously to the events of the first season. Torv is back, of course, but Jacki Weaver is as much a presence as she was in Stan’s Bloom (ie barely at all) and her presence is much missed following a speedy departure.
Torv’s character is more or less the same, although she’s a runner rather than a rower now. Everyone else is brand new – clearly there’s been an entire change not only in government, but military command and other rarefied areas of Australian society.
However, the antipodean acting community being somewhat small, you’ll recognise practically everyone from countless other Australian dramas: Don Hany (East West 101, Bad Mothers, Doctor Doctor, Serangoon Road) is now prime minister, Rob Collins (Cleverman, Glitch) is a soldier doing some investigative work, Andrew McFarlane (Glitch, Cleverman, The Code, Hyde & Seek, Newton’s Law) is his boss and Joel Tobeck (Xena, Westside, The Doctor Blake Mysteries) is the defence minister.
They’re all great, but we’re talking a clean sweep here. That clean sweep extends to the script. While we do have a few references to Weaver’s Chinese shenanigans, this is a far more “by the books” thriller, one that’s also quite reminiscent of The Code in terms of themes. There’s little time for the characterisation of the first season in a thriller that’s so plot-driven, with Torv a puzzle solver with little time to stop. It’s actually more streamlined and compelling than the first season, but it’s not especially colourful.
The political relevancy is also somewhat different. The first season portrayed an Australian caught between the crazy Americans and the dangerous Chinese. Here, though, we have a more conventional warning against the “military industrial complex” that’s so intent that you don’t miss the subtext, it actually has Hany watching Eisenhower’s speech – and then going off and telling everyone what he’s just watched and what it means. Who are the bad guys? Big industry and they play by their own rules. They’ll blackmail you, your auntie, your auntie’s auntie, your dog and your cat, just so they can start wars against nuclear states where their weapons will get used.
I wonder: is nuclear Armageddon good for stock prices? I, personally, doubt it, but the baddies in Secret City are less convinced.
If I hadn’t watched the first season, I probably would have enjoyed Under The Eagle more than I did. There is, after all, nothing wrong with a back to basics, pared down, political thriller. Torv and the rest of the cast do a good job. The script is fine and there’s barely any slack anywhere, unlike Pine Gap say. It’s even reasonably exciting and who doesn’t feel a slight thrill at watching someone open up Tor for a quick browsing session?
It’s just not great and it’s bland in comparison to the first season. What it has to say about political manipulation isn’t new and doesn’t feel as uniquely Australian as the first season did. It’s not even until the final moments of the final episode that you get that State of Play feel to the show again and really feel that Torv’s a journalist, rather than AN Other Investigator.
So watch it for it is, enjoy it, but don’t expect something that’s anything except Secret City in name only.