Australian dystopia gets very hairy. Literally
UK Broadcast BBC Three, finished Australia Broadcast ABC, finished Episodes Reviewed 1.01-1.06
Rather bizarrely, ignore all the swearing, gore and sex in Cleverman, and there’s a really good idea for a new spin on the “chosen one” trope so popular in children’s fantasy literature: what if the chosen was a complete loser? Because that’s essentially what happens here.
Cleverman is an Australian/New Zealand/American co-production – made and set in Australia – that, rather improbably (but surprisingly successfully), marries Aboriginal mythology with the dystopian genre. In a near-future Oz, a subsection of the Aborigines, the Hairypeople, have come out of hiding and are being treated as subhumans, feared, detested and forced to live in a controlled zone. They’re stronger, faster and, as the name suggests, a good deal hairier than us, and they have a mystical connection to the Dreamtime.
Waruu, a kind of militant leftie, runs the zone and fights for hairy rights. He expects to become the Cleverman, an aboriginal Shaman, but the current Cleverman, his Uncle Jimmy, gives his inheritance to Waruu’s screw-up half-brother Koen. Koen doesn’t want these powers and doesn’t believe in the legends. But when something starts ripping the hearts out of humans and Hairypeople alike Waruu knows he must get Koen to step up to the mark.
Mixing in Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen as a dodgy media mogul, corrupt politicians and the spirit of Dreamtime (or something), in a plot where everybody who isn’t hairy is frankly vile to one another, this is conspiracy drama meets racism allegory – it’s full of great ideas, compelling performances and hard-hitting moments. What it doesn’t have is much of a story. It presents itself as a miniseries but ends on a cliffhanger, with enough dangling threads to recreate the Bayeux Tapestry.
Possibly it’s aiming to be enigmatic but it simply ends up sprawling, vague and unsatisfying. It is grown up but it’s not necessarily clever. Also Weta’s Hairypeople make-up is pure Carry On Screaming.
But while it may not be the most coherent of shows, at heart there are some interesting themes and world-building going on.
One of the Hairypeople. Not too surprisingly.