New Australian dramas are a showcase of exceptional talent and tales

Craig Mathieson


Suddenly we’re spoilt for choice. In the last two months there’s been a rush of new and diverse Australian drama series appearing on television, with Secret City, Cleverman, The Kettering Incident and finally Barracuda all debuting. If you believe that one way of measuring a country is the stories it chooses to tell about itself through its most popular medium, then here was a moment of vindication. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, on, on, on.

This was a diverse screen nation, seething with mystery whether they were related to national security in Secret City or the beautiful, blighted landscape that underpins The Kettering Incident, both on Foxtel. Via the ABC, Cleverman tied Indigenous myth to a science-fiction framework, while Barracuda was a 1990s period piece about Australia’s divides that was an intimately observed redemption tale.
Whatever they were about, each shook off baby boomer equilibrium. Anna Torv and the remarkable Elizabeth Debicki were female protagonists on Secret City and The Kettering Incident respectively, while Cleverman turned the colour bar of Australian television upside down with a thrilling assemblage of Indigenous actors and a young man’s thwarted gay desire was as powerful as his hunger for sporting greatness in Barracuda.

We also learnt that we’re still wary of long seasons and open-ended storylines. At eight hour-long episodes, The Kettering Incident is as extended as these shows go, while Barracuda is half that length; we still like our storytelling self-contained, even if second seasons were always planned for some of these titles. They were also ambitious in other ways, which is important. If we want to match the rest of the world then we have to not only push the form forward, we must also acknowledge where good intentions went astray.

In the case of Secret City, a tale of espionage rooted in the corridors of power and numerous deserted corners of Canberra, a degree of the credit built up by the welcome initial episodes – with their intricate laying of plot points and the unspoken appraisal of the dissolved marriage between Torv’s journalist and Damon Herriman’s transgender government analyst – was lost in the rush to wrap everything up in the final episode.

At the beginning of Secret City each death was felt, they delivered a shock the character and the viewers felt. By the close it had become a convenient way to tidy up the various strands. A thriller develops a certain momentum as they barrel towards a finale, but when that wave breaks there needs to a sense of perspective and contemplation to wash over those who’ve watched it unfold. In belatedly setting up a second season, the show botched the ending of the first.

Cleverman did a better job of building to a climax, but you could argue that it never came. The first season culminated on a defiant cusp, reinforcing how much work is required to build a fictional world where dystopic science-fiction elements were intertwined with the Aboriginal Dreaming. It was purposeful, even if it didn’t have the time – and definitely the budget – to always be persuasive. A shoestring ethos meant that the Hairypeople, a species long hidden among humanity, rarely got to exhibit their enhanced powers.

But the show was compelling when it came to using extraordinary fictions to illuminate contemporary facts. In a recognisable Sydney, the Hairypeople are ghettoised, degraded and exploited as subhuman others. When an Indigenous character is told that “subbies are animals”, her retort is swift: “They used to say that about my people, too.” Cleverman spoke to the responsibility of heritage and the debate between political and direct action, complete with a politician who “can’t discuss operational matters”. It was out there, yet right here.

The Kettering Incident is still taking shape, with an eerie slow-motion panic rising up around the inhabitants of a Tasmanian logging town, but it just might be the best of this quartet. The Australian Gothic and the brutality of our denied past seep through the verdant forest where two girls go missing 15 years apart. Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s colour palette is evocative, while the menace was palpable in the first two episodes directed by Rowan Woods (The Boys).

With her blackouts and tangled motivation, Debicki’s Anna Macy is a wonderfully unreliable fulcrum; she may be trying to solve the crisis, or simply fuelling it. With its sightings of lights in the tree line and unexplained markings on bodies, the program hits that evocative spot where the bizarre taps into the lucid. Like SBS’s French series about the return of the dead, Les Revenants, The Kettering Incident takes deep, long lungfuls of troubled air.

Adapting Christos Tsiolkas’s 2013 novel Barracuda could be a screenwriting exercise – there are numerous possible approaches. It has a single, diffused voice, where The Slap had many revolving around a defining moment. Directed by Robert Connolly, the series condensed the teenage fury of Danny (Elias Anton), a champion swimmer from Melbourne, into a tight arc. It was tidy, perhaps too tidy, for the fury that lurks in Tsiolkas’s writing didn’t rupture as it should.

The series was telling on the psychology of sport, with the best performance yet by Matt Nable as a dedicated coach, and all of these Australian dramas were laced with great actors doing standout work: Deborah Mailman revealed layer after layer as a mother scorned by her son in Cleverman. So what’s needed next? Many things, just as long as it begins with more.