Underbelly: Season One
Underbelly, first broadcast on Australia's (commercial) Nine Network in thirteen episodes between February and May 2008, is based on true events, namely the gangland war in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004. The serial is adapted from the book, Leadbelly: Inside Australia's Underground by John Silvester and Andrew Rule. Not for nothing is it “a jungle out there” as Burkhard Dallwitz's theme puts it. In the beginning we are introduced to the “Carlton Crew” (Carlton being a suburb of Melbourne) of criminals, and in particular Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley), who at the outset is the lowly driver to the drug-dealing Moran brothers. Over the thirteen episodes, we watch his rise to the top of the heap, along with his wife Roberta (Kat Stewart), his rivals often bloodily disposed of on the way. ...and the police's attempts to combat the escalating violence.
As I say, Underbelly is based on true events – with some notable fictionalisations – and this has implications for the series's treatment of them, particularly in the State of Victoria. Local laws prohibit the dramatic depiction of serving police officers past or present, unless they had been dismissed, so the police officers here are fictional characters. The ones we follow are Detective Senior Sergeant Steve Owen (Rodger Corser), Senior Detective Jacqui James (Caroline Craig, who also serves as the narrator) and their boss Garry Butterworth (Frankie J. Holden). There's nothing wrong with their performances, but especially in the earlier episodes, the emphasis is squarely on and the interest is in the villains, and Owen and James tend to fade into the background. In one episode, Owen is only in one short scene.. Some well-known character actors made vivid impressions in the episodes they appear in: notably, Vince Colosimo as Alphonse Gangitano, a psycho with a hair-trigger temper who starts the whole thing off, Les Hill as Jason Moran and Alex Dimitriades and Kym Gyngell as people who at the time could not be named because they were awaiting trial – more about that in due course. Underbelly was a breakthrough performance for Gyton Grantley, twenty-seven at the time, who had been acting since the beginning of the decade. He expertly conveys Williams's transition from baby-faced often dismissed beta-male (often called “Fat Boy” by the rest of the Carlton Crew) to ruthless crimelord and would-be top of the heap. As his wife Roberta, Kat Stewart is in full-on chav mode, or whatever the Australian equivalent of that is, with a vocabulary which could blister paint. Also in the supporting cast, broadcaster Derryn Hinch appears as himself.
Underbelly is an uneven series, with some poorly-written supporting characters – noticeably two young women on a witness protection programme in the first episode, who are also directed in a very male-gazey way. The one female writer Felicity Packard, gives the female supporting cast get more nuances in her episodes, especially the one centred on the wives and girlfriends of criminals, Episode 7, “Wise Monkeys”. Some of the direction is over-flashy too. But the series does establish a grip, which keeps you watching to the end. Underbelly was a success in the ratings and with critics, and it won six Australian Film Institute Awards: Best Drama Series, Grantley and Stewart for Best Lead Actor and Best Lead Actress, and, specifically for the “Wise Monkeys” episode, Best Director for Peter Andrikidis and Damian Walshe-Howling and Madeleine West as Best Guest or Supporting Actor and Actress.
The series, while self-contained, has since become a franchise. Each subsequent series bears a subtitle, and is a self-contained series with different casts and characters, though Caroline Craig has returned as the narrator. A Tale of Two Cities (2009) is a prequel series, covering events in Melbourne between 1976 and 1987 and The Golden Mile (2010) between 1988 to 1999. Razor (2011) takes us back to the 1920s, while Badness (2012) takes us to twenty-first century Sydney, and for the first time eight episodes instead of the usual thirteen. Squizzy returns us to Melbourne between 1915 and 1927. In addition, there has been a New Zealand-based spin-off, Land of the Long White Cloud (2011) and three standalone TV movies broadcast together in 2011 under the umbrella title Underbelly: Files. There will be a direct sequel to the first series presently reviewed, Fat Tony & Co, to be broadcast in 2014. Due to changes in funding it will not go out as an Underbelly series. (As I write this, A Tale of Two Cities, The Golden Mile, Land of the Long White Cloud and Underbelly: Files have been released on DVD in the UK, and I hope to review them for this site in due course.)
Underbelly was not without controversy. Australian television gives its programme ratings – similar to those bestowed by the OFLC for cinema and DVD releases – which are displayed onscreen beforehand. The Nine Network premiered Underbelly at 8.30pm with a self-applied M rating (advisory for those under fifteen) which caused protests from the Australian Family Association. You can see their point: the serial has enough violence, strong language, sexual content, nudity and hard drug use to earn an 18 certficate from the BBFC, and on disc in Australia Underbelly bears a much more understandable MA rating, mandatory for over-fifteens unless accompanied.
The other controversy was for legal reasons, due to the portrayal of real-life criminals. There was no issue with those who were behind bars or dead, but with those who were at the time awaiting trial. So some characters are unnamed in dialogue, and their names are withheld from the end credits: Alex Dimitriades is credited as “Mr T” and Kim Gyngell as “Mr E” in the episodes in which they appear, for example. You also occasionally have captions like the following:
However a legal injunction prevented the series initially from being broadcast in Victoria though it was in the other Australian states and territories. Victorian residents eventually saw edited versions of the first five episodes in September 2008, with scenes removed and one character – then awaiting trial – having his face pixelated. Restrictions were lifted in 2011 due to that person's trial being ended, and an “uncut” version of the series was aired in Victoria. However, a character named in the final episode was still awaiting trial so, as the DVD and Blu-ray release is of the original broadcast version, as I write this the series is not available for sale, either in stores or by mail-order, in Victoria. No doubt the series was torrented very soon after the initial broadcast and there were no legal restrictions on Victorians crossing the state boundaries and buying the DVD or Blu-ray elsewhere, so it's likely that those who wanted to see the serial would have managed to do so.
Contender's UK DVD release of Underbelly comprises four all-region discs. There are four episodes on Disc One, three each on the other three discs, as follows:
1.The Black Prince (42:20)
2.Sorcerer's Apprentice (42:48)
3. I Still Pray (42:22)
4. Cocksure (42:33)
5. The Good The Bad The Ugly (42:56)
6. Luv U 4 Eva (42:07)
7. Wise Monkeys (43:41)
8. Earning a Crust (42:36)
9. Suffer the Children (42:37)
10. Scratched (42:43)
11. Barbarians at the Gate (42:16)
12. Best Laid Plans (42:31)
13. Team Purana (43:19 )
Underbelly was made in SD PAL, and the episodes are transferred in the correct ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. There's nothing wrong with the transfers, which look as I don't doubt they are intended to look, colourful and sharp with strong blacks.
The soundtrack is available in the original Dolby Surround (2.0) and a 5.1 remix, plus an audio-descriptive track in 2.0. The 5.1 and 2.0 are much the same, though the 5.1 is louder and the LFE channel does add to the low end: note the drums at the beginning of Dallwitz's theme. This also benefits the music featuring on the soundtrack, much of it having an understandably Australian bias: Spiderbait feature several times (“Fucken Awesome” accompanying an orgy sequence) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds's version of “The Carnival is Over” plays over the final scene of the last episode. There are English subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing, which were also useful for identifying the music tracks I wasn't familiar with.
There are no extras.