Following months of critical fanfare in its native Australia, Cleverman has finally made its way over to our side of the planet, arriving on BBC iPlayer over the weekend. Created by the Indigenous Australian Ryan Griffen, with an 80% Indigenous cast, the show draws on traditional Aboriginal culture and lore to repurpose the myth of the Hairypeople into a superhero show.
Despite the use of special effects curtesy of Weta Workshop, who worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the ‘heroes’ don’t look like much – picture the cast of Hollyoaks after an accident involving vats of tar and feathers. Still, they’re incredibly strong and much more agile than humans – which explains why their sudden emergence six months before the start of the series drives the authorities to round up the Hairies and contain them securely within an area known as ‘the Zone’.
While the show is obviously inspired by the Australia’s own problems with racial tensions and immigration, it’s not hard to find parallels with issues on these shores. The shoving of Hairies into makeshift camps barely befitting a third-world country could easily be seen as an allegory for our own response to the influx of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, the emergence of a right-wing politician (Andrew McFarlane) who capitalises on a Hairy’s act of self-defence to claim the species are dangerous “subhumans” ehcoes the frightening rhetoric of Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ ad and Trump’s border wall.
The central story revolves around two estranged Indigenous brothers with deep ties to Aboriginal culture. The eldest, Waruu (Rob Collins), is an equal rights activist who keeps an iron rule over a refugee camp for Hairies. When his Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) meets an unexpected and grisly end, Waruu initially assumes he will inherent the mantle of Cleverman – an important figure in Aboriginal culture who acts as a conduit between the past, present and future. You can understand his anger, then, when he learns the power has been bestowed on his younger brother Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), a slacker who makes money on the side by selling out illegal Hairies to the authorities.
It’s an incredibly familiar fantasy conceit – which is part of what holds Cleverman back in the early episodes. There’s very little about the show that’s new or inventive, it simply trips over the same old tropes we’ve seen time and time again. The reluctant hero who is granted immense power; the mystical elder who acts as our guide; an unseen monster terrorising the cast from the shadows. Every plot point has been used to much better effect countless times before in the likes of Stranger Things, Orphan Black, Humans, or any other genre show that questions how we treat a sentient other.
Cleverman also falls into a familiar trap by spending too much time world building and not enough time telling a compelling story. We’re introduced to a large number of meandering subplots in the first episode. There’s Latani (Rarriwuy Hick), a young Hairy who finds herself alone and on the run after her family is betrayed by Koen; Djakarta (Tysan Towney), Latani’s brother, who is being carted to an unknown part of the Zone; and Iain Glen’s media mogul Jarrod Slade – always filmed striding through doors to denote he is a man of power – who clearly has a grand scheme in motion involving the Cleverman. It means there’s an awful lot of ground to cover in just six episodes and the series often struggles to develop these pieces after establishing them. There’s no shortage of meaty ideas here, but not enough time to really chew on them.