TL;DR – Cleverman is revolutionary TV show in many ways, its freshman season was a powerful work of cinema, though not a perfect one.
Score – 4 out of 5 Stars
For those who have not seen the show yet, and you should go fix that, Cleverman is the story of Australia in the not too distant future. Where we lock people up just because they are different or because it is politically convenient for the government to shift the blame on to them, where people have to shed aspects of their cultural identity to try and protect themselves from harm just because they are perceived as being different, and where the government can use the catch-all excuse of ‘national security’ to hide things from the population and to deflect condemnation of the international system. So you know it’s clear that this is fiction because that would never happen in modern Australia… To do my overview of the first season of the series I am probably going to spoil a couple of things, so you have been warned now to only proceed if you have watched the show.
The reason why Cleverman is revolutionary is that it takes The Dreaming stories of Indigenous Australians, and combines them with this post-dystopian narrative. This means for many people, this might be the first time they have experienced Indigenous Australia’s stories, and indeed this might be the first time they have ever heard Indigenous languages spoken in any context, and frankly that is an indictment on modern Australian cinema and Television. But where Cleverman excels is the immense tapestry of stories and influences it draws from. We have the stories from The Dreaming with the Sun and the Moon, The Crow, The Cleverman, but as well as this, also there are aspects of the Prodigal Son story in the narrative of Waruu (Rob Collins) and Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), even references to classical Greek mythology with Ilithyia. All of this creates an interesting juxtaposition, the blending on the ancient and the future, the spiritual and the technological, in many respects, it has echoes of Fringe and Ghost in the Shell.
As well as this meta-narrative there are also the human stories that push the narrative of Cleverman forward. The story of Waruu the elder West brother, who at the core I really believe that he wants to do good for his people and for The Zone, but he’s not doing it out of a notion of doing good, he’s doing it out of a notion of making himself look good, I liken him to a reverse Captain Sisko. One the other side you have Koen who has become incredibly selfish as almost a defence mechanism, like sleeping with his best friends girlfriend selfish or helping out a family in need only to turn them into the authorities for a cash reward selfish. But all of that is a product of his childhood, a mixed race child, hated by everyone, including his own brother, and underneath all that bravado is someone who when presented with a dilemma tries to do the right thing. Then you have Slade (Iain Glen) who has the persona of someone who cares for people when the government won’t, and is looking to make the world a better place, but underneath that veneer, that is good enough to fool even his wife Charlotte (Frances O’Conner) who is a committed humanitarian, is a ruthless demi-god, who only cares because it helps him exploit people for his own personal gain. The way he works, is almost like the Nazis, blending mythology and science, using unethical human/hairy experiments and removing people once they are no longer useful to him.
One of the strengths of this season has been the use of amazing Australian talent. The power of Deborah Mailman (Aunty Linda) cannot be understated, even when she is just sitting on the stairs throwing shade she is wonderful. Her grief in the last episode after Waruu calls out her past was real and guttural, and if she does not win at least a Logie then there is no justice in the world. We also have Tysan Towney (Djukara) who has this bravado of youth, but in the moment where his father is punished for his actions you see the amazing range of this young actor, in fact, this whole scene was one of the most powerful scenes on modern television. While I will be talking about the representation of women in the show a bit later, what an amazingly powerful performance Rarriwuy Hick (Latani) gives. When she calls Djukara out for his reckless behaviour, the pain and grief mixed with anger echoes throughout the show. Cleverman builds upon these powerfully strong emotions and performances to deliver some of the most controversial, subversive, yet powerful television.
Given this is a freshman series there is always things that you can improve on, and things that I hope they work on for next season. For example, I don’t think they quite got the balance of World Building-Story-Action quite right this season, there were a lot of really great moments but also some awkward transitions between those moments that felt a bit like filler. For example, throughout the season there was this push that the next episode will be the turning point but that never really came to pass. If they can work on strengthening those transitions and lulls I know the narrative will be much stronger next season, and given we are moving out of an origin story and more towards the coming conflict, I’m sure that will give the narrative that important push it needs. Another area that I hope they work on is the representation of women in the show, for most of the season, most of the female cast felt a bit superfluous, or at least that they were passive actors in the narrative. Now in the last couple of episodes we saw that change somewhat with Nerida (Jada Alberts), Latani (Rarriwuy Hick) & Alinta (Tamala Shelton) realising that the men are next to useless and thus they show a much more active role to get stuff done, this is something I hope they continue and improve on next season. Also avoid those awkward sex scenes from the first episode, which had some jarring transitions and odd framing issues.
All in all, I really liked this first outing and frankly, it is revolutionary, if you have not watched it yet, then catch it on Iview or SundanceTV now, in fact, I think it might actually work the best binge watched rather than weekly episodes. The best comment I think I can give a television show is this, I can’t wait for the next season, and bring on Cleverman season 2.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Written by – Michael Miller (Episode 1,2,3,4,5&6), Jon Bell (Episode 1&2), Jane Allen (Episode 6)
Based on – an original concept by Ryan Griffen
Directed by – Wayne Blair (Episode 1,2,5&6), Leah Purcell (Episode 3&4)
Staring – Hunter Page-Lochard, Rob Collins, Iain Glen, Ryan Corr, Tysan Towney, Tony Briggs, Frances O’Connor, Stef Dawson, Tasma Walton, Rarriwuy Hick, Jada Alberts, Tamala Shelton, Andrew McFarlane, Marcus Graham, & Deborah Mailman with Jack Charles