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Gangsters are people too

  • 26 March 2009
We 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