Considering the lack of people who aren’t bleached-white male perfection in superhero roles, there’s something to be said about Sundance’s new series, Cleverman, right off the bat. Set in a dystopian future, the series offers a familiar yet immediately attention-grabbing conceit, with Australia being the setting for egregious segregation that keeps werewolf-like creatures, derogatorily known as “Hairys,” in ghetto-like territories set away from more “civilized” homo-sapiens. So, yes, it’s essentially District 9 with werewolves instead of aliens, but then there’s another twist: the Hairys rely on the wisdom of the titular counsel, a title that also brings with it powers to connect to those in the afterlife, heal, and regenerate. And throughout the six episodes of Cleverman, the transition between an elderly cleverman (Jack Charles) and the new one, Koen (Hunter-Page Lochard), is at the center of an intricate, genuinely alluring, and intermittently inventive world.
The political backbone to all of this is clearly the immigration and refugee crisis, as well as perpetual bigotry and racism, and Cleverman is effective in expressing the horror and humiliation that such peoples are often forced to live with. Early on into the series, a family of Hairys is sold an apartment outside of their zone, where they might live peacefully with more opportunities and safety, only to have the man who sold them the place call them into the authorities. In the scuffle between the Hairys and the police, the youngest child of the family is shot dead, a crime that no one is asked to answer for under the law. Later on, the series depicts what life is like for Hairys in a prison run by humans, which makes the more grim moments of The Shawshank Redemption look like jail time in Monopoly.
The man who turned the family in is, in fact, Koen, who is denoted by nothing so much as greed and a healthy libido before his uncle (Charles) passes on the powers of the cleverman to him. As a character, Koen is a far more complicate composition than most protagonists, having his wanting to be a self-accepting crooked bar owner challenged by the new powers that make him an emissary to all the Hairys, as well as to humans. He’s also seemingly the only man who can battle the brutal beast that killed his uncle, an enigmatic monster who is fond of eating its victims’ hearts. The slow-moving yet enveloping pace of his transition gives the series a feel of a true moral and political awakening, rather than a simple change of heart that is made simply to make the formulaic plot move through its turns a bit quicker.
Unfortunately, the rest of the series isn’t quite as complex as Koen. The humans are largely represented by the media and politicians, both of whom are swayed by a largely unseen public opinion, and there’s no sense of a moderate contingency that can actually argue the nuances of integrating with the Hairys, who are stronger and faster than humans. There’s no human face to the argument, no detail into the emotional tenuousness of the Hairys dilemma, which makes the oppression feel simplistic and bland rather than engineered through furious debate. When the male members of the Hairy family from the beginning end up in jail, they are tormented and shamed by the guards incessantly, as if there was never a prison guard who actually struggled or was offended by such behavior. Nor, for that matter, is much attention paid to life in the Hairy zone, how community, labor, and relationships figure into life on that side of the divide.
For all its criticism of the media, most prominently in the form of Iain Glen‘s television bigwig, as only interested in the conflict of a story, rather than the more challenging, contradictory peccadilloes that fuel most issues, Cleverman is itself chiefly interested in the conflict between the humans and the Hairys. The series shows enough sides of the conflict, including Hairy civil rights activist Waruu (Rob Collins), Koen’s half-brother, and Latani (Rarriwuy Hick), a member of the aforementioned Hairy family who survives and lives in secret outside the Hairy zone, to keep the series engagingly multifaceted, but it all comes down to the same good vs. evil storyline. And if Frances O’Connor‘s helpful doctor does show one face of a sympathetic human, helping those who have been wounded and discarded, the writing ultimately makes her come off as an ineffectual figure of peace and kindness, a familiar motherly figure who just wants everyone to get along.
As a basic entertainment, Cleverman fulfills its duties outright, expressing a hazy, intermittently heartbreaking reflection of a conflict that every country has faced in one way or another. As a work of political contemplation and metaphor, however, it’s too quick to take the easy moral high ground and refuse to see the deeper historical, behavioral, and societal roots of such issues, and plays on accepted emotional reactions to racism and immigration that bring no new ideas to the table that one can’t get on a waving protest poster. Cleverman works up to a point, but the failure of the show’s creative team to build upon the promise of its conceit and its underlying ideas leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.
★★★ – Not Bad, But Should Have Been Better