Review: cracking second serve of The Code shows Canberra as we don’t know it

Michael Idato

03/09/2016

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With its gleaming buildings, sinister shadows and taut-as-a-guitar-string soundtrack, gritty political thriller The Code (ABC, Thursday, 8.30pm) is built on the premise that Australian audiences will not only watch political thrillers, but that we can create them with an authentic-enough edge that viewers will be able to suspend disbelief.

Without getting into an argument about party politics, it’s fair to say Australia’s political class is not strong. On both sides of the spectrum we have a fairly motley assortment of people who look as though they would struggle to organise a chook raffle at a school fete, let alone be the architects of the kinds of clever conspiracies that political thrillers of this sort are built on.
So to be fair, to both Australia’s political class and the makers of The Code, it’s best to push that notion aside straight up and pretend the show’s setting, though it looks like Canberra, is a sort of “other” Canberra. One where the suits aren’t quite so cheap, where many, many more women hold senior positions and where X-Files-esque “smoking man” types lurk everywhere, making “things” happen.

You know. Fixers. People who “fix” things. Just not the sort of “fixers” found in the real Canberra.

The narrative is driven by Ned (Dan Spielman), a journalist, and his brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a computer hacker. The first series dealt with a secret research project, a company named Physanto and the extremely dangerous-sounding uranium hexafluoride.

Things got very sinister at the end, so much so that the brothers are facing extradition to the US as the second series opens. We kick off proceedings with a tense encounter in a remote location, this time the jungle of West Papua, which is notably (and clearly deliberately) reminiscent of the set-up for series one.

This is where we meet Jan Roth, played by Anthony LaPaglia, the first of a whole bunch of new characters (and high-profile) actors who seem to have suddenly invaded the narrative. Next up is Sigrid Thornton as Lara Dixon, a kind of post-Dana Scully type who we meet perched behind a computer with her best “mmm, what’s this, then?” expression on, but who would look equally at ease trowelling through some alien dust in The X-Files.

The Code is written by Shelley Birse, who ought to take a bow. The writing is crisp without ever getting away from itself, and the tone strikes the Goldilocks sweet spot: it’s just right. Not too underdone, not too overdone. Striking that balance is tougher than it looks, so kudos too to director Shawn Seet, production designer Michelle McGahey and director of photography Bruce Young.

Things roll along at a cracking pace. The set-up is elegant, if simple: Ned and Jesse don’t want to be hauled off to the United States, Jan Roth doesn’t want anyone to get their hands on his cache of contraband, least of all Lara Dixon, who is dead keen to do exactly that.

This genre is a risky business. Left of the mark and it risks looking like a cross between Spyforce and Yes, Prime Minister. Right of the mark and it looks like it’s trying to be House of Cards and ends up looking like House of Hancock. Spielman and Zukerman are fantastic leads, and perhaps they don’t get enough credit, in part because they are surrounded by a cast who hoover up media oxygen: the brilliant LaPaglia and the magnificent Thornton.