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Aussie crime shows 'Underbelly' and 'The Straits' worth checking out

Posted 8:17am on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013

TV viewers are used to crime with an American accent, whether it's the twang of the Kentucky hill country in Justified, the Baltimore street-corner hustle of The Wire or the New Jersey bada-bing-bada-boom of The Sopranos.

And, thanks to BBC America, they've gotten used to English cops-and-robbers adventures, too, even if some of the phrases and dialects might strike some as a bit, well, dodgy.

But it's in the world of online streaming where two of the most intriguing crime series are currently getting exposure in the U.S., and they come from even farther afield: Australia.

The superior Underbelly on Netflix and the more pedestrian but still fascinating The Straits on Hulu proffer a rough-and-tumble view of the island continent at odds with its surf-and-sun image.

It's these shows' combustible culture clash -- the Mediterranean/immigrant European/Aussie working-class hoods vs. the middle-class Anglo-Australian cops of Underbelly, and the multiracial white/Aboriginal/islander crime family at the heart of The Straits -- that is increasingly representative of today's Australia.

Much like The Slap, the bestseller-turned-Australian miniseries that aired on DirecTV last year and focused on the fraying relationship of an interracial Melbourne couple, these series are a long trek across the Outback from Crocodile Dundee.

But, more than that, they're compelling drama. And you might learn a few words to add to your crime-slang collection.

'Underbelly'

This five-season series -- of which the first three are available on Netflix -- returns to these shores riding a wave of acclaim. It has won the Australian equivalent of the Golden Globes and Emmys several times and has aired here previously on DirecTV.

Each season deals with a different true-life slice of the Australian underworld, which Americans have gotten glimpses of in the past in movies like Chopper in 2000 (where many were first introduced to actor Eric Bana) and the Oscar-nominated Animal Kingdom in 2010. The first season, originally shown in Australia in 2008, starts with its focus on Alphonse Gangitano (an explosive Vince Colosimo of Body of Lies), a wanna-be Scarface and an especially short-tempered member of the Carlton Crew, a gang of hoods at the heart of Melbourne crime culture in the '90s.

Yet the 13-episode first season quickly pulls back into a sprawling, multilayered tale of corruption and criminality, venality and violence as others like the calculating but feral Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley) and ambitious brothers Jason and Mark Moran (Les Hill and Callan Mulvey) vie for top-dog status in the drug trade.

On their heels are two detectives, Steve Owen (Rodger Corser) and Jacqui James (Caroline Craig), who often are just one or two frustrating steps behind.

What's most fascinating about Underbelly is that it isn't just the product of some screenwriter's fever dream but is based on recent history. Though I'm guessing many liberties were taken with the facts to fit within the confines of television, an Australian court delayed broadcast of the series in Melbourne and the surrounding state of Victoria because of concerns about fair trials for defendants portrayed or alluded to in the series.

For the second and third seasons, the series turned its lens to Sydney for Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, about the marijuana business in the '70s and '80s, and Underbelly: The Golden Mile, dealing with the city's nightclub culture of the '80s and '90s. (Not being shown here are Underbelly: Razor, set amid Sydney "razor gangs" of the '20s, and Underbelly: Badness, a portrait of contemporary crime figure Anthony Perish, a convicted murderer. There are also three Underbelly films, known as Underbelly Files.)

Taken altogether, it's a powerful and compelling glimpse into a world we haven't seen before.

'The Straits'

The setting for this 10-episode miniseries is stereotypically Australian: the tropical sun-kissed city of Cairns, a seashell toss from the Great Barrier Reef. But at the center of it is a family with more on its mind than the Saturday barbecue.

The Montebello clan is headed by father Harry (the excellent Brian Cox, Manhunter), a drug kingpin bringing in goods from suppliers to the north in Papua New Guinea through the Torres Straits Islands.

His wife, the scheming Kitty (Rena Owen, Once Were Warriors), is equally involved, as are their four adopted adult children, all of whom have varying degrees of Aboriginal or Torres Straits Islander heritage. (The series is the brainchild of co-star Aaron Fa'aoso, an actor of Tongan, Samoan and Torres Straits Islander descent.)

While Harry is trying to decide which of his sons will take over his empire, he has to constantly watch out for the local biker thugs, the Papua New Guinea "raskol" gangs ("raskol" is PNG pidgin English for a criminal), and the cops.

While the more soapy The Straits is less engrossing than Underbelly -- the writing isn't nearly as strong and the acting is all over the map -- the landscapes are stunning, the music (from Australian world-music pioneer David Bridie) is infectious, and it submerges viewers in an exotic, foreign place.

It even deals with issues currently troubling Australia, like the fate of the Asian and Middle Eastern boat people washing up on its shores (though the Sri Lankan character unfortunately is played mostly as comic relief, blunting the effect).

It's too bad The Straits didn't get to have a second season. You might not want to have the Montebellos over for dinner every week -- things tend to get broken or shot up -- but they're pretty entertaining to watch.

Cary Darling, 817-390-7571

Twitter: @carydar

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