Aboriginal Australian folklore gets familiar sci-fi take in SundanceTV's ‘Cleverman'
Another perk to having a growing number of channels and streaming services available: Awesome international shows. Thanks to SundanceTV, we can wander, or rather, click across oceans for something else to wet our palettes. They gave us France's captivating series Les Revenants (The Returned), and Germany's spy thriller Deutschland 83. And now they've added Australian sci-fi drama Cleverman to this summer season.
It's about time a solid show from Down Under came to the States. This gritty series gives us a glimpse into Australian folklore and a new kind of superhero. The six-episode series is set in the near future where creatures from ancient mythology resurface after 60,000 years. Afraid of their superhuman strength and strange appearance, humans force the "hairypeople" into an internment camp of sorts, called the Zone. The government and the media blame the indigenous people for a series of mysterious murders, and tensions rise as the city figures out how to treat the new inhabitants.
Like many sci-fi shows, Cleverman tries to find a balance between politics and mythology. Even though Americans might be unfamiliar with its history and Australia's indigenous racism, the human-rights nuances are relevant to any society. But the show is not for everyone. Cleverman is disturbing in its violence as well as in its emotions. The mythology woven into the story makes for some entertaining science fiction, but it's hard to level with the show's severity when it oversteps its welcome. And it doesn't help that the "Hairies" look straight out of a Geico commercial.
But the heart of the show rests in its magnetic lead. Relative newcomer Hunter Page-Lochard plays Koen West, who inherits the role of Cleverman after his uncle dies. He's marked with two eye colors to represent his indigenous origin as well as superhuman healing and fighting power. Koen hesitantly embraces his new role as the conduit between the worlds as he struggles with his own identity. But his half-brother, a Hairy activist, wanted that job, and the two don't see eye-to-eye on how to lead the Hairypeople community.
Cleverman tries to humanize the Hairies by following a family torn apart after they are captured trying to flee the terrible conditions of the containment area. But the show should have spent a little more time on them, and a little less on the sly media mogul and his home life. Save that for season 2.
Despite its shaky themes, Cleverman is still a quality sci-fi drama fit for both aficionados and newbies of the genre. It may rest in familiar supernatural tropes, but its original take on Australian culture will grab American attention.
Creator Ryan Griffen, who faced Aboriginal prejudice, wrote a touching essay in The Guardian about why he chose to write this story about an unlikely superhero for his son.
"Thanks to the growing Australian film and television industry, and the rise of Aboriginal storytelling within it, we are now in a position to step up to the global stage and show what the oldest culture in the world has to offer. This is so close to my heart. On Cleverman, we worked hard to get Aboriginal people in as many roles as possible, and this shines very brightly on screen. Showing the world all these stories in a modern format is one of the greatest gifts Cleverman has to offer."
Cleverman premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.