05/18/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

The Golden Age of Australian Crime and Mystery TV Continues

The Golden Age of Australian Crime and Mystery TV Continues

In the two years that have passed since I did my first round-up of Australian crime and mystery dramas, our “Golden Age” of Antipodean streaming options has only grown more gilded. To date, at least two dozen more top-tier Aussie (and Kiwi) series have made their way to North American streaming services, including cringe rom-com Colin from Accounts (Paramount+), cringe apocalypse comedy Class of ‘07 (Prime Video), and cringe probate law comedy Fisk (Netflix). Also, the Cringe Comedy King of them all: Taskmaster, both Australia and NZ editions.

But of course it hasn’t just been cringe comedies the Antipodeans have been sending north these past two years! They’ve also — as you’ll see with the inclusion of Deadloch and Far North below below — sent us some prime examples of cringe crime drama(dies), too.

Okay but for real, all (cringe) jokes aside, the volume of exceptional Australian and Kiwi crime and mystery dramas that have popped up across every North American streaming service since the last CrimeReads list was published underscores just how rich the mystery tradition is on the other side of the equator. Not only is the storytelling strong across the board, but that storytelling is supported by stunning cinematography and remarkable casts. This last is particularly exciting, as several of the series — like Black Snow, which drew from the local South Sea Islander community it shot in to cast its core characters — feature whole slates of new faces.

All of which is to say, what follows here is just a snapshot of the great Antipodean crime TV that’s currently streaming for North American audiences. Some of it is funny; much of it is challenging. All of it is solid.

A note about our organizing strategy: While the last list dropped in alphabetical order, this one is chronological by the story’s primary setting, starting in 1855 and running all the way up to 2023.

The Artful Dodger (Hulu / Disney+)

The Artful Dodger | Official Trailer | Hulu

The Artful Dodger feels like the result of a dare: A period piece that’s also a medical drama that’s also a heist show that’s also a raucous indictment of Victorian classism that’s also a star-crossed romance that’s also a spinoff of a Charles Dickens novel. Sure!

In slightly more detail (though I’m not sure it will make this show’s whole deal any clearer), The Artful Dodger tells the story of Jack Dawkins, AKA Oliver Twist’s infamous Artful Dodger, who has escaped the cells of Newgate and absconded to Australia, where he’s come away from his time aboard a navy ship something of a surgical savant. When the series opens, it’s 1855, and Dawkins (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is employing those surgical skills as entertainment for the toffs in the theater of Port Victory, where by way of compensation he’s given room and board and not a scrap of salary more.

With no surgical unionist movement in sight, Dawkins is obliged to spend his off-time hustling at the local poker tables to turn his meager theater tips into something a bit more substantive. Five minutes into the pilot, he’s in hock to the local poker boss (Tim Minchin) for more money than he’s seen in his lifetime; ten minutes in, his old London gang boss Fagin (David Thewlis) has washed ashore, obsequious and scheming in equal measure.

It won’t be a surprise that this unfortunate combination spirals into Dawkins having to shrug on his old Dodger persona to pull off a number of increasingly daring crimes. What might be, though, is that in between his pre-ether surgeries and post-London heists, Dawkins also manages to get romantically entangled with the Governor’s eldest daughter, Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell), whose sense of justice and mind for medicine is more than a match for his own.

As weird an “adaptation” as this show is, Dawkins’ wild Australian tale is so compelling that it doesn’t matter that Oliver Twist himself is left behind in England, two oceans and a lifetime away — romantic, class-conscious, and squelchingly visceral, The Artful Dodger is banger.

Boy Swallows Universe (Netflix)

Boy Swallows Universe | Official Trailer | Netflix

Based on Trent Dalton’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the limited series Boy Swallows Universe is another exercise in Australian TV going just absolutely full tilt in layering together genres and narrative modes that really have no right to work en masse, but still somehow do.

In this case, those layers are 1) violent drug-running crime thriller, 2) wrenching family melodrama, 3) gonzo journalism joint, and 4) guileless (often animated!) coming-of-age story, all of which come together to tell the tale of future crime reporter Eli Bell (Felix Cameron / Zac Burgess) and his artistic, selectively mute brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley) as they barely survive their tumultuous pre-teen and teen years in 1980s Brisbane.

In early episodes of the series, the boys and their mom, Frances (Phoebe Tonkin), are living with their retired drug dealer stepdad, Lyle (Travis Fimmel), a firecracker of a father figure who really wants to do right by them all — and especially Frances, who’s a recovered addict — but who finds himself falling back into old drug dealing patterns long before the first episode is out. By the end of the series, adult(ish) Eli and his crime reporter colleague/crush, Caitlyn (Sophie Wilde), are traipsing the darkest hollows of Brisbane on the hunt for the story behind the psychopathic drug lord who’s haunted the Bell family for years. And in between, the Bell family laughs and loves and goofs off and hugs, and Gus beatifically pens smoky messages from the future with his finger in midair, and draws charmingly innocent illustrations about the Bell family’s fortunes that keep coming true.

It’s a weird mix, tonally! But back here in the States, Tarell Alvin McCraney pulled a similar trick with his exceptional OWN (now MAX) series David Makes Man, which featured a similarly charming and emotionally full-up central teen boy character facing similarly harrowing domestic circumstances. So clearly this kind of tonal tension is something audiences are ready to bear!

Still, as charming as Eli is at every age — and as hopeful a note as the series really does end on — I do want to stress that this series is not for the faint of heart. The first episode features a graphic animal (lab rat) cruelty, and the final set piece takes place in a blood-spattered mad scientist’s lair that would give the best Fright Fest you can think of a run for its money. (Lyle, spoiler alert, fares very poorly in this regard.) But if you can swallow your bile for those parts of Eli’s story, Boy Swallows Universe is worth a look.

 

Mystery Road: Origin (Acorn TV)

Acorn TV Original | Mystery Road: Origin | Official Trailer

Prequel stories can be hit or miss, but the 1999-set Mystery Road: Origin, which tells the story of Mystery Road’s Detective Jay Swan back in the days when he had only just earned his badge, connects so squarely, the ball sails past the horizon.

Starring Mark Coles Smith in the role originated by Aaron Pedersen, Origin posts up with Jay as he returns to his tiny, dusty hometown of Jardine, a fictional gold mining town in Western Australia that is divided along generational lines of race and wealth — that is to say, a place where the white vs. Indigenous tension that has long defined Swan’s character can stretch taut.

Profiled as a criminal his first night in town, Jay finds his homecoming fairly brittle. And that’s before he reconnects with his alcoholic rodeo champ father (Kelton Pell), his vagabond brother Sputty (Clarence Ryan), his take-no-shit first love Mary (Tuuli Narkle), or his wealthy white mine-owning childhood pals Geraldine (Caroline Brazier) and Patrick (Daniel Henshall), who on the one hand really do seem to love and support Jay as an individual, but who also live in a house where the “art” on their mantle is a wooden tree adorned with slavery-era neck chains. (“Well, people pay good money for real history,” Geraldine bristles when Jay says something mildly critical of it, “so.”)

The mystery that follows Jay’s homecoming is classic Mystery Road — thorny in social implications, spare in dialogue, and, thanks to Tyson Perkins’ blistering cinematography, often astonishing simply to look at. For longtime fans, some key personal details from Jay’s history feel retconned, but not so egregiously that it should pull you out of the story. Because what does remain the same is Jay’s laconic doggedness in pursuit of justice, and the series’ commitment to laying bare Australia’s colonial sins.

May we get another season soon.

Black Snow (Sundance Now)

A Sundance Now Original | Black Snow | Official Trailer [HD]

Another entry on this list featuring Travis Fimmel in a lead role, Black Snow follows cold case Detective James Cormack as he travels to a small town in North Queensland in to investigate the unsolved murder of Isabel Baker (Talijah Blackman-Corowa), a popular high school senior from a South Sea Islander community who, alongside a real Breakfast Club hodge-podge of fellow detention kids, had put together a time capsule for the graduating class of 1994 that, when it’s finally unearthed twenty-five years later, turns out to contain a bloody clue to what happened to her the night she was killed.

Much like fellow “sunshine noir” series Mystery Road did before it, the story Black Snow proceeds to tell is one of deep-seated racism, colonial violence, and patriarchal oppression. Only here, that story sits within the context of industrial sugar cane operations and the immiserating labor, health, and social conditions that surround them. What happened to Isabel in 1994 — and, not incidentally, a handful of trafficked young Pacific Islander workers — is directly tied not just to the historic sins of Australia’s colonial past, but also to the very much still living sins of its modern day economic and cultural engines.

Cormack, of course, eventually solves Isabel’s case (the genre formula at work!), but it’s hard to call the emotional fallout of the conclusion “satisfying.” That said, the newcomer performances at the heart of Isabel’s story — not just Blackman-Corowa as Isabel, but also Molly Fatnowna as the young version of her little sister, Hazel, and Eden Cassady as grown-up Hazel’s daughter, Kalana — are gripping, as is Fimmel’s uncompromising intensity in Cormack’s drive to give other families the peace he can’t secure for himself.

That’s right — Cormack is also embroiled in a personal cold case, his being the decades-old disappearance of his younger brother from their abusive childhood home. And while a few dominoes from that story fall here in Black Snow’s first season, there are plenty of questions still left to unravel in Season 2, now filming in Queensland.

 

Safe Home (Hulu)

Safe Home | Official Trailer | Hulu

Possibly the most harrowing entry on this list (and that’s saying a lot, given the two Fimmel joints blurbed above), the modern day family violence thriller Safe Home is also at least blessedly brief.

Starring Aisha Dee as Phoebe Rook, a trained journalist and communications professional who is, when we meet her, in the process of moving on from a PR gig at a fancy progressive law firm to become the first ever communications officer for an overworked family violence legal clinic, Safe Home aims to give its audience an unflinching look at the utter banality of family* violence.

(*As the clinic’s staff didactically exposits in the first episode, the choice of “family” as a qualifier here is a critical and intentional one, as “domestic” carries with it the albatross weight of having been too easily dismissed by law enforcement and media for too long. “Okay, so, family, got it,” says Phoebe in Episode 1, lesson received.)

Across its four hour-long episode, the series follows both Phoebe’s work at the underfunded clinic and the specific stories of abused women from all walks of life, a spectrum which includes a seemingly comfortable white grandma whose life on a horse farm looks idyllic to her small-town neighbors; an immigrant whose limited English gives her husband and in-laws total control over her life; and a young queer retail employee whose co-worker boyfriend indulges not just in physical abuse, but also revenge porn.

More to the point, the spectrum also includes someone within Phoebe’s immediate social circle — someone whose abuse, we are teased when the first episode opens, Phoebe is so long blind to, that it ends up resulting in their murder.

The mystery of who’s been murdered (and who by) drives the framing tension of Safe Home, and the answer, when it’s revealed, is conclusively distressing. But what the series is even more interested in is the everyday tension that pervades so many family violence victims’ everyday lives, and which those of us lucky enough not to have (yet) been touched by it directly can’t even sense. That’s a story that doesn’t have an ending.

 

Deadloch (Prime Video)

Deadloch | Red Band Trailer | Prime Video

If not the funniest series on this specific list, the Tasmania-set Deadloch is by far the most replete with full-frontal male nudity. Well, it’s likely the leader of full-frontal female nudity, too — but once you get to the punchline at the end of the investigation, it’ll be clear that it’s the male nudity that matters.

But let’s back up. Deadloch is a Broadchurch-esque “odd couple” detective series that is both a send-up of the overly serious small-town-serial-killer genre and one of the best examples of that niche to date. It stars Kate Box as Deadloch Sr. Sergeant Dulcie Collins, a buttoned-up, ex-detective lesbian with a free-spirited big animal vet wife, and Madeleine Sami as Detective Eddie Redcliffe, a hot hetero mess of a detective sent over from mainland Australia to “assist” on the serial killer situation suddenly sweeping the hyper-progressive burg. It also effectively (and affectionately) takes the absolute piss out of overly earnest progressive “wokeness,” while simultaneously illustrating the very real threat of men’s rights activists and self-styled “male allies” alike.

For anyone who bristles at rhetorical incompetence, Eddie’s investigation-destroying brashness for the first half of the season can be a hurdle too high, but for those willing to stick that one rough spot out, the relationship that she and Dulcie eventually build — and the confidence that their leadership inspires in their young forensically minded colleague, Abby Matsuda (Nina Oyama) — is one of the best that new 2023 detective dramas had to offer. And given where the first season ends, that relationship is only just beginning…

 

Far North (AMC Plus)

Far North – 2023 – Three (NZ) Series Trailer

The sole Kiwi offering on this particular list, Far North stars Temuera Morrison (Boba Fett himself!), Robyn Malcolm, Villa Junior Lemanu, Maaka Pohatu, John-Paul Foliaki, Albert Mateni, Fay Tofilau, and Mosa Alipate Latailakepa on the Aotearoa side of things, and Xiao Hu, Xana Tang, Fei Li, Dennis Zhang, Nikita Tu-Bryant and Louise Jiang on the Chinese side.

Partly based on a true story — “partly” here meaning, “whole exchanges lifted in their entirety from the 2016 court transcripts” — Far North follows, in parallel, 1) the comically inept exploits of an Australian-Tongan “smuggling” “gang” looking to turn Big Time with an incoming shipment of Chinese meth, 2) the less comedic exploits of the all-female crew of forced-labor Chinese smugglers failing to bring that shipment in, and 3) a retired Māori mechanic (Morrison) and his aqua aerobics-instructor wife (Malcolm).

With a cast this sprawling, cultural references this specific, and criminal acts this inept, Far North aims for (and occasionally hits) the Snatch register. Where it falls short of that mark is in its momentum — it takes a long time to get going, and loses narrative steam every time the focus shifts back to the immiserated Chinese smuggling crew. When it does get going, though, it’s a ride! Stick with this one; truth is stranger than fiction.