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Gangsters are people too

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Roy Billing as Aussie Bob and Matthew Newton as Kiwi Terry in Underbelly: A Tale of Two CitiesWe are now past the halfway point of Series Two of 'true crime' drama Underbelly, and it's clear that something is missing. Like its predecessor, Series Two is still a ratings champion. But viewers of both series could be forgiven for noticing its lack of something more than controversy.

Series One thrived on controversy. Banned from broadcast in Victoria, the stylised series about Melbourne's gangsters saw that state's pirates go mainstream. Internet download software burgeoned and burnt DVD copies were passed between mates like race tips.

In all likelihood, Channel 9's much vaunted series would have slain its ratings rivals anyway, especially in Melbourne, where the slayings it portrayed took place. The voyeuristic appeal was strong. It was trashy in its own stylish way, and exploited sex and violence and the excesses of its characters' world.

Yes, the series banked on voyeurism. But it banked on something else too. Strong scripts and performances evoked the humanity of its characters, both the good and the seedy. It was this that was its greatest strength.

Think of the thoughts of redemption that dogged, but couldn't save, Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo). The duality of Andrew 'Benji' Veniaman (Damian Walshe-Howling), all warmth and charm in his home and social life, but coldly murderous when he went to work. Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley), the affable underdog, cheerily pursuing wealth and power. His wife Roberta (Kat Stewart), a loud-mouthed scrubber unable to keep her passions in check.

The series made no excuses for their corrupt ambitions. It didn't ask for our sympathies. But it did demand our emotional involvement.

Series Two has by comparison been insipid. It too contains graphic bursts of violence and sex. So gratuitous was the nudity in one episode that some vulgar commentators quipped that instead of A Tale of Two Cities, the series should be subtitled A Tale of Two Titties.

Yet the prequel series lacks the thematic resonance and strength of character to counterbalance its excesses. It portrays the rise of drug empires in Sydney and Melbourne during the 1970s and '80s, centring on New Zealand expat 'Kiwi Terry' Clark (Matthew Newton), his affair with naïve but corruptible Allison Dine (Anna Hutchison), and his criminal alliance with Robert 'Aussie Bob' Trimbole (Roy Billing).

These central characters are underdeveloped and unmemorable. Notably, even after seven episodes we know little about Clark, other than that he has a head for the drug trade, is a philanderer, has a homicidal streak and occasionally likes to paint in the nude. Newton has the gift of a piercing glare. But a glare does not a character make.

In addition to the criminal elements, the series portrays the rampant corruption of NSW police at the time. But even the coppers are given short shrift. There is nothing to rival the Series One heroics of super-cop Steve Owen (Roger Corser) and the eternal cool of his partner Jacqui James (Caroline Craig, who also narrates both series).

Instead we get caricatures of seedy, suited coppers passing out bribes in sandwich bags. The series tries to capitalise on the goodwill of longtime viewers, by revealing that one of the rare good cops (Asher Keddie) is the mother of Jacqui James. Sorry, folks, it will take more than that.

Let's face it, caricature is easy. Think of the media rhetoric surrounding bikie gangs this week, that links bikies as a whole with terrorism and organised crime. Demonic caricatures are effective for sensationalising news, but good journalism demands more than that. And so does compelling storytelling.

It goes without saying that well-drawn characters make or break a drama series. For my money, a very different show, Channel 7's domestic drama Packed To the Rafters has likeable and multi-dimensional characters in spades, and without the sex and violence. It's carried it off for two whole series in a row now (the series two finale aired this week).

Six episodes remain for Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, so there is still time for it to redeem itself. If it doesn't, it has some ground to make up, if it comes back for a third season.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, Matthew Newton, Roy Billingalphonse gangitano



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Existing comments

I haven't watched the series. However, and it might well have validity, the statement that gangsters are human seems to be trying to moderate the fact that once one steps outside the limits of society, then the guidelines tend to be re-drawn. if you fly with the crows, then you get shot as a crow.

Stewart Beveridge | 08 June 2009  

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