by ETHAN PETERSON
creators Ryan Griffen, Michael Miller & Jon Bell
Watching Cleverman on SundanceTV this week I was reminded of how completely America has erased its indigenous people from contemporary culture. In Australia, a different state of affairs exists. Aboriginal people are always at the edge of Australian culture, but their mature concepts and themes have a deep influence on how Australians define themselves as the people.
Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) has integrated himself completely into this people. He runs a bar with a best friend and fucks the guy’s girlfriend in the back between serving pints. On the side he makes money relocating Hairies (a native species divergent from humans with immense strength and speed) to secret housing and then reporting their whereabouts to the government, who persecute them out of fear.
Every single character in Cleverman has this potential for evil, and while it would be farfetched to say this is an Australian characteristic, it reflects a basic guilt for the essential crimes against the aboriginal people that the United States pretends to have resolved through casinos and lenient tax situations.
Koen becomes a cleverman in the show’s pilot, which among other things gives him the power to see individual’s futures through touch, as well as almost unlimited healing. This gift from his uncle alters the fabric of who he is, and gives him a new perspective on his shitty, drug and sex-fueled life.
His primary antagonists on Cleverman carry most of the action, and they are what make the show so much fun to watch. The first is Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen), a media executive much closer than Ser Jorah Mormont to Glen’s natural strengths of steely resolve and an unclear sense of what is moral in the world. His wife Charlotte (Frances O’Connor) looks to have barely aged in the nearly two decades since she starred as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
The casting of the two as a couple with vague sympathies towards aboriginal people and Hairies makes the de facto Australian point of view. Cleverman features a somewhat light commentary on how we view the various problems of immigration and cultural minorities with different beliefs. Cleary and Slade’s waterfront home is a metaphor for how their literal positioning of privilege keeps them apart from the realities of such debates, and the protection of their wealth seems a tad bit convenient for this fractured milieu.
The other antagonist is Koen’s brother, the wonderfully certain and slightly demonic Waruu (Rob Collins, in a breakout role). Collins has a young daughter and a wife he cheats on with a white woman. Besides his infidelity, his only crime is that he is not the cleverman he expected to become when his uncle died. The concept of a character who is ruined by being denied one thing – when he has everything else – is kind of Oedipal. In any case, it is somewhat unusual in serial television.
The weakest part of Cleverman is the plight of a family of Hairies who Koen betrayed. Their incarceration by a bunch of vindictive and malevolent prison guards is the only part of the show without shades of grey. It seems too grim an indictment on the Australian people that they would allow torture and murder of any species. Observing these creatures of transparently applied makeup is hard enough without seeing them shocked and bled.
While British shows have found an easier time appealing to American audiences, a more difficult accent, lower production values and a less similar environment have slowed the inroads of the up-and-coming Australian film and television industry. Cleverman hurdles these difficulties through impressive production values, a variety of gorgeous locations and Ser Jorah Mormont and his wife. Initially the political messages seem a little abstruse, but that can be solved over time.
Despite small missteps, Cleverman‘s blend of horror and near-future science fiction gives the series an exciting base. The show is noticeably short on action so far, but that energy seems to have gone into showing us all the angles of its conflicted, embattled characters. Cleverman is the only show of recent note that gives me the feeling that actual life conveys at moments – of a difficult slog dotted by brief moments of incandescent beauty and love.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.