We Homo sapiens have gotten pretty used to being the only humanoid species on Earth. So, what would happen if we somehow ran across a cousin species—perhaps a somewhat better design? What if that species also happened to be dark-skinned? It doesn’t take much brainpower to write that scenario; we’ve got 5,000 years of experience in intra-species cruelty and oppression to draw from. Now, how would it go if an indigenous superhero took up that cousin species’ cause?
That’s Cleverman, a joint production by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Sundance Studios that debuted June 1st on the Sundance Channel.
The six-episode series is set a few months from now, in a Sydney that most American viewers won’t recognize (no bridge, opera house, or Paul Hogan). About six months before the first episode, the Australian government discovered that the hairypeople (“Hairies,” for their abundant pelts) aren’t just a 60,000-year-old Aboriginal legend, but an actual non-Homo sapiens species living in the far Outback. They’re super-strong, desert-tough, have bright blue eyes, and live for hundreds of years.
All the predictable things have happened since then. Hairies have been dubbed “subhuman” and are penned in The Zone in an industrial Sydney suburb. They’re imprisoned for not much reason at all. They fall victim to attacks by white hooligans and fraudsters alike. They’re scapegoated for everything wrong with the world and inspire mouth-breathing demagogues to agitate for “clampdown” and “removal.”
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s basically what white Australians did to the Aborigines until a generation or so ago, and what Americans have done to pretty much everybody who came after (or before) the Mayflower.
The Hairies share The Zone with urbanized Aborigines, including the West brothers: Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard, active in Aussie TV), who isn’t above smuggling out Hairies and calling the cops on them for the reward; and Waruu (newcomer Rob Collins), a handsome and glib Zone community organizer and Hairy-rights advocate. Their Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles, Pan), the current Cleverman, passes his nulla nulla (wooden war club) to Koen, then gets himself killed by the Namorrodor, a nasty creature that shows up when the cosmos are imbalanced.
Being Cleverman isn’t like being president of the local Rotary. The Cleverman is a connector between the present and the Dreaming. In this series, he’s a composite of various indigenous tribal traditions and has special powers, such as near-instantaneous self-healing, the ability to see visions of other people’s pasts and futures, and breathing life into fresh corpses—as Jimmy does before he becomes a Namorrodor snack.
To say that Koen is unready to be the spiritual leader of the local Aboriginal community (and perhaps the Hairies’ best hope) is a vast understatement; to say that Waruu—who’s wanted to be the next Cleverman since he was a boy—is displeased by being passed over for the job is like saying that koalas are slow.
Meanwhile, outside The Zone, Immigration Minister Geoff Matthews (Andrew McFarlane: Neighbours, Home and Away) may be sending Hairies off to oblivion in unmarked trucks, and television mogul Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen, Game of Thrones) is working a deal with Uncle Jimmy on one hand, while encouraging his on-air talent to flog stories implying that Hairies are behind the Namorrodor’s al fresco feasting.
First-time producer Ryan Griffen has a lot on his plate here. The show’s references range from the Syrian migrant crisis to #BlackLivesMatter to Trump’s wall, Oz to Schindler’s List to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. He downloads 60,000 years of completely unfamiliar (to Western audiences) indigenous mythology in the first episode.
The production is handsomely shot and the action sequences are well-staged. The Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings) makeup effects for the Hairies are effective for faces and extremities (though they bear an unsettling resemblance to the Geico cavemen), but are a bit shaky when they go for the full pelt. Two episodes in, Griffen’s storytelling and plot management is pretty solid.
Unfortunately, subtlety isn’t one of his strong suits. Matthews is a smug, venomous racist. The head guard at the black-site prison for Hairies isn’t just tough, he’s a psychopath. It’s not enough for Waruu to be slick and ambitious; he’s also cheating on his wife and bullied Koen when they were boys. The Hairies are mostly victims. The Containment Authority—the paramilitary force that keeps the Hairies in their place—could be the Red Hats from Colony, the Ferguson tac team, or Bull Connor’s thugs in Birmingham.
The bright spot: Koen is showing some depth and character development, which could be just enough to pull his people (and the viewers) through.
Cleverman will run on Wednesdays through July 6th on the Sundance Channel. All 5 current episodes are available on streaming video from the Sundance website.
Images via SundanceTV
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. The characters in his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South are all homo sapiens and mostly shave regularly. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.