If you live in Australia or NZ there is very little chance that you haven’t heard about or watched Underbelly.
It all started with the original Underbelly , a 13 part series which depicted the Melbourne gangland wars that took place between 1995-2004. Although accused of inaccuracies, the hard-hitting drama was a hit across Australia due to an excellent cast and a compelling narrative that was tantalisingly based upon ‘true events’. THe show was such a commercial and critical success that there are now six series in total as well as three tele-movies.
- Series 1 – Underbelly – Melbourne gangland killings between 1995–2004 (13 Episodes)
- Series 2 – Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities – Griffith drug trade between 1976–1987 (13 Episodes)
- Series 3 – Underbelly: The Golden Mile – The Kings Cross scene between 1988–1999 (13 Episodes)
- Series 4 – Underbelly: Razor – The Sydney Razor Gang era between 1927-1936 (13 Episodes)
- Series 5 – Underbelly: Badness – The Story of Anthony “Rooster” Perish between 2001 – 2012 (8 Episodes)
- Series 6 – Underbelly: Squizzy – The Life of Joseph ‘Squizzy’ Taylor between 1915-1927
- The movies are: Tell Them Lucifer was Here, which is about the 1998 murders of Victorian police officers Gary Silk and Rod Miller, Infiltration – the story of Australian detective Colin McLaren’s infiltration of the Calabrian Mafia in Griffith, New South Wales, and The Man Who Got Away – the story of David McMillian, a drug smuggler and the only Western man to ever escape from Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison
The following youtube clip is a seven minute ‘story so far’ that was a prelude to the final episode and is an excellent introduction to the tone and pace of Series one.
Series one had many of Australia’s leading actors playing some of the most notorious criminals of the last 25 years (including Chopper Reid) so series 2 was going to be hard pressed to follow and many enthusiasts still claim that Season one is the only ‘true’ Underbelly, with all the rest paling by comparison. Adding a bit of extra-textual tension and realism to the series was the fact that a the time of the DVD release, the series was still banned in the state Victoria due to ongoing trials and legal proceedings.
Currently screening here in Aus in season 5 – Underbelly:Badness which depicts the 11 year struggle to bring murderer Anthony ‘Rooster’ Perish to trial. Perish is played by Jonathon LaPaglia who has been resident in the USA for so long that he needed a dialect coach to get back an aussie accent for his appearance in drama ‘The Slap” which he filmed prior to Underbelly. Badness has been the most hard-hitting yet in that it lacks any of the romance that was offered in the earlier series. Perish is portrayed as a vicious and ruthless killer who thought nothing of killing anyone who crossed him or threatened his freedom. In one episode there is a graphic image of a murdered mother and her young son which made many viewers squeamish, claiming it to be ‘too much’. Although I understand the reaction, LaPaglia is nothing short of monstrous in the role and it’s difficult not to swallow every single line he utters – crime isn’t pretty and murderous criminals are not romantic outlaws – terrible, awful things happen and in telling their story, it’s going to get dirty. I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.
Australian drama is very, very different from both North American and UK drama – I am not saying it is better or worse, but it is an acquired taste. When Australian drama excels it is sensational – but we don’t get there as often as we should. If you have never watched an Aussie drama – and you enjoy a bit of crime, Underbelly is definitely worth a look.