Celebrity gangsters, crooked cops, violence, sex scenes, a ripping soundtrack, star turns, urban folklore coming to life before our eyes –Underbelly‘s infamy is now so well entrenched in Australian television that we know what to expect. As the theme reminds us, “it’s a jungle out there.”
In perfecting these hallmarks it also risks losing the element of surprise.
Underbelly‘s third series is a return to these traits. Set against King’s Cross from 1988-99 there are glitzy strip clubs, extortion rackets, drag queens, street brawls -even an advocate for Godliness preaching to the streets (or was he wryly written in to represent outraged conservatives who saw A Tale of Two Cities?). Given Sydney’s red light district featured in Season Two there is already much familiar turf here.
Caroline Craig’s voice over as Jacqui James sets the montage scene, introducing a young John Ibrahim (Firass Dirani), an ambitious school drop-out who comes to the Cross to seek his fortune. The street is full of larger-than-life characters with names that flash on the screen at a frenetic pace, to the tune of a suped-up ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’
“Whatever your persuasion, whatever your poison, it was for sale on the Cross,” says James.
Handsome, charismatic and sly, Ibrahim is soon mentored by underworld boss George Freeman (Peter O’Brien giving the series gravitas) -an urban apprentice will learn fast from his sorcerer.
“I want to be as successful as you,” he tells Foreman.
Foreman tells him he might make something of himself with 3 or 4 years of servitude, and instils the value of respect.
“3 or 4? We’ll see,” says the impatient Ibrahim.
Spearheading the viewpoint of the arm of the law is Det. Sgt. Trevor Haken (Dieter Brummer). In A Tale of Two Cities he was memorably shocked by a lunchbag of cash thrown his way by bent suits. Now he is an old hand at the practice. His colleagues are played by actors including Diarmid Heidenreich and Rob Carlton. Haken’s sweet wife, played by Natalie Bassingthwaighte, looks set to play the voice of morality.
Playing good cop to Haken’s bad cop is Snr. Constable Joe Dooley (Wil Traval), a by-the-book uniform who walks the beat but ends up playing ineffective observer, caught in the crossfire of crims who rule and the devious detectives of the State Police (NSW Police are never mentioned).
The other principal thread, introduced in the second hour, follows country girl Kim Hollingsworth (Emma Booth) whose boyfriend, hilariously played by Mark Furze in a great first scene, detours her from an optimistic domestic life in the big city. Hers is a sympathetic performance that humanises the story amid its heavy plotting.
Sigrid Thornton also adds a dash of class to the second hour as Australian Federal Police Inspector ‘Gerry’ Lloyd.
Other Australian actors to appear across the series will include Steve Bastoni, Matt Day, Paul Tassone, John Waters, Andrew Bibby, Salvatore Coco, Jessica Tovey and Damien Garvey.
But it is Firass Dirani whose star will be cemented by this series. He rises to the challenge of the dashing, charismatic Ibrahim with ease. Similarly, Brummer proves worthy of a greater role than he had in the previous series.
There is less excess in The Golden Mile than A Tale of Two Cities -two breast shots and the odd ‘F Word’ in the opening segment appear to address some concerns. Violence is still at the core. Lane Cove makes a brilliant period double as King’s Cross (although an actual location before the ‘Coke’ billboard was ruined by a contemporary Coles logo in the opening scenes). Without the character acting of Roy Billing, it’s also a very serious affair.
There are also so many montages serving as story short-cuts it begs being called ‘Underbelly: The Golden Montage.’
Some have even criticised the Underbelly franchise for ‘glamourising’ criminals. But in a country that turned Ned Kelly and Squizzy Taylor into folk hero, it is a dramatic device tempered by redemption and lesson-learning. Most of the crims in Underbelly end up dead, even if history seems to repeat itself.
For all its attributes, Underbelly comes at us without the punch that so defined its first series. While it may no longer qualify as ‘Event’ television it remains a formidable teleplay, under writer Felicity Packard and director Tony Tilse. The hook lays in our investment in Ibrahim’s rise to ‘glory’ and Hollingworth’s spiral into despair.
Nine is yet to declare an airdate for the series, or indeed, to decide whether it will launch with a double episode (it would be well-advised to). The Winter Olympics in February could interrupt its early plans, while Easter non-ratings could thwart a later start.
Whenever it begins, it’s worth your attention.