Cleverman recap, season one episode one: supernatural and political
Indigenous Australian lore is turned into a superhero show to original and exciting effect in this hectic first episode
After media buzz and critical acclaim following its preview at Berlinale, Cleverman has arrived. Created by the Indigenous Australian Ryan Griffen, with an 80% Indigenous cast, the show draws on traditional Aboriginal culture and lore, repurposing it into a superhero show.
Being a Goori from the Birpai nation in New South Wales, I was prepared to cringe at Cleverman: Hairymen, the superheroes in question, are seriously heavy figures in our lore.
Having 60,000 years of backstory to cover, episode one has a lot to get through. First we see a crew of mouthy yobs on a bus harassing a lone, young, dark-skinned woman (Miranda Tapsell) who is reading a book. In self-defence, she pulls up the sleeve of her jacket. Shes a Hairy, one of the yobs warns. You shouldnt be outside the Zone, you filthy rug, another sneers, moments before his cheek is opened by a single swipe of the womans hand.
For Australian audiences, the context of the scene is immediately familiar: bigoted ranters targeting marginalised people on public transport has become prolific viral-outrage fodder over the past five years. For Indigenous viewers, the scene announces that were definitely not relegated to the back of the bus on this ride.
Cue the slick titles, featuring a breakbeat audio track with Indigenous hip-hop performer (and Cleverman cast member) Adam Briggs laying down over Top End folk artist Gurrumul, and a montage of images evoking science, the environment and Aboriginal spirituality.
The political parallels continue as we encounter a government minister delivering a statement to a scrum of reporters the following morning. Hes spinning the bus attack as confirmation that the Hairies are dangerous subhumans that need to be segregated and contained securely within an area known as the Zone.
The parallel with the Australian governments policy approach to asylum seekers is obvious. But theres a more historical reference at play here too: the experiences of First Nations people during the White Australia era. It could also be an allegory for the political situation surrounding the influx of refugees into Europe, or Trumps border wall rhetoric.
Next were in the Zone with the series protagonist Koen, and his business partner and mate Blair. Koen and his bruz are about to engage in a spot of human trafficking. The Hairy family helped by the pair provide our first good look at the special effects that come courtesy of the Weta Workshop, who worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I, for one, welcome the Teen Wolf-likeness of the Hairies.
Theres plenty going on elsewhere. The fact that the Hairies speak the traditional Gumbaynggirr language, for example the use of which was officially discouraged until relatively recently. Theres humour, too, like the short exchange between Koen and the father of the Hairy family Listen Bundy Boondee Yes. Boondee much like Frank Drebin in Police Squad, and the banter between Koen and Blair as they wait for the family to appear.
It turns out that the entrepreneurial pair have been double-dipping, ratting their resettled clients out to the Containment Authority (CA) for a lucrative reward. This double-cross appears to be in financial aid of their bar venture an establishment which may or may not be the Criterion referred to by the yobs as they boarded the bus.
With the CAs retrieval process under way, we glimpse one of the series international stars: Iain Glen, star of the Jack Taylor series, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. Glens character, Jarrod Slade, is a media mogul. Tipped off about CAs impending retrieval, he assigns one of his reporters, Belinda (Leanna Walsman), to get a human angle on the story. It turns out that shes involved with Clevermans secondary Indigenous protagonist, Waruu, who is married and works in the Zone. This series isnt shy about sex and nudity.
Rounding out this hectic exposition is the confrontation between the militaristic CA and the Hairy family who were ratted out by Koen and Blair. As the CA attempt to separate them in a basement carpark, the eldest son Djukura retaliates, overpowering half of the force with his superior speed and strength before being subdued with a Taser. As if to punctuate the melee, a CA guard then shoots the familys youngest daughter dead. Belindas news crew are recording, and footage of the event is broadcast across the city and (uh-oh) inside the Zone.
Indigenous elder and actor Uncle Jack Charles makes his first appearance as Jimmy in Koens bar, where he bestows a warriors club (known as a nulla nulla or waddi) on his nephew. Koen arrogantly dismisses the gesture and is warned: This is not a game. Its time you decided what tribe you belong to. Later on, Uncle Jimmy is seen inside a morgue passing a life force into the frozen corpse of an Indigenous girl.
The same night, Uncle Jimmy now on a beach lights a campfire and summons something that arrives like a meteor from the sky. It splashes into the water just offshore; strangely satisfied, Uncle Jimmy opens his shirt to welcome what looks like a giant beast surging through the water towards him. Next, we hear the predatory squeal of something large and unmistakably bitey.
Over at the city morgue, Waruu investigates the corpse of his late uncle whose left eye has turned white and immediately recognises the work of a Namorrodor, which, he tells his wife, turns up when things are out of balance. Waruu learns who is behind the people smuggling, and takes his henchman Harry to visit Koen at the bar. He describes Koen as a Judas leech-sucking vermin of half-brother, right before Harry rips off Koens petulant middle finger. It grows back almost immediately, and Koens blood-filled left eye turns blue.
Koen demonstrates his new regenerative healing powers to Blair and Ash by slicing his arm open with a barmans friend, and heads to Uncle Jimmys funeral to flaunt his newfound powers to Waruu. Moments earlier, Waruu had announced that he looked forward to inheriting Uncle Jimmys abilities which appear to have gone to half-brother instead. Awks, but it sets up the next confrontation between the two of them rather nicely (and maybe attracts the Namorrodor?).
Its a solid first episode, albeit heavy going with a lot of ground to cover. The pacing is right, but how deeply can the series cover some of these weighty themes in six episodes? Also why have the Hairies only appeared in the last six months, after 60,000 years of existing almost unseen?
Cleverman is on Sundance TV at 10pm on Wednesday nights in the US and on ABC TV at 9.30pm on Thursdays in Australia. It will screen on BBC3 later this year