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Review – Underbelly NZ: Land Of The Long Green Cloud

August 18, 2011

Underbelly NZ: Land Of The Long Green Cloud – TV3 – 9:30pm Wednesday – NZ

Ever since it’s very first series the producers of Underbelly have been trying to recapture the magic that made the first season such a success. The subsequent two seasons and telemovies have turned Underbelly into a hollow mess, so maybe a New Zealand interpretation is the kick needed to get the series back on track. With the 1920s set Underbelly: Razor debuting in Australia on Sunday night, this Wednesday just gone saw the Land of the Long White Cloud get a taste of how even in its own backyard it’s a jungle out there with Underbelly NZ: Land Of The Long Green Cloud. Underbelly NZ promises to tell the story of the REAL Mr. Asia, which is most definitely a different Mr. Asia to the Terry Clark version Matthew Newton played in A Tale Of Two Cities, although Terry Clark does appear here as well, just to make things confusing.

The real Mr. Asia is Marty Johnstone (Dan Musgrove) who’s introduced in typical Underbelly fashion as we watch him be chased down the street by a pair of police officers. No guesses as to whether during this chase sequence Marty spots a naked woman in her house; it’s just as important for Underbelly to introduce exposed breasts as it is to introduce its main characters. The pair of cops chasing Marty are our narrator Detective Constable Ben Charlton (Jamie Irvine) and Detective Constable Caroline Derwent (Holly Shanahan). Narrator Ben lets us know that marijuana was big news in New Zealand and Marty had gotten himself involved in the weed business; this being Underbelly he says it thusly: “While the police were uprooting crops, Marty Johnson was up rooting in Northland. Trading weed for sex.” In classic Underbelly fashion this narration is accompanied by a graphic sex scene in the forest just to hammer home the point.

At this stage in its existence nobody is tuning into an episode of Underbelly for its subtlety. Nor would you tune in expecting anything remotely resembling character development. The characters in Underbelly NZ are simply there to service the plot, all we ever really know about these characters is their name and which side of the law they’re on. Along with Marty and the Detectives we are introduced, via name cards that pop up on screen as per Underbelly custom, to Andy Maher, Mack The Mick, Bonnie Marie Jones, Greg Ollard, Chinese Jack, “Diamond” Jim Shepherd, the Chief Superintendent, Speedy Stan, Terry Clark, Gary Majors, Pommy Harry, Peter Miller, Big Ari and Detective Clive. Sorry, were those fourteen names too much to remember in a single sitting?

This obsessive-compulsive disorder Underbelly has where it feels the need to inform us of every single characters name in big bold writing up on the screen is one of the more bizarre creative decisions the series has made. Knowing the name of Marty is important, sure, but won’t some other character say his name at some point? Why do we need to know the Chief Superintendent’s name? Can’t we just assume by the fact he’s ordering around other cops that he’s a higher ranked officer? Characters like Mack The Mick or Bonnie Marie Jones or Speedy Stan barely get more than a line or two and yet the series believes their names are important information we should learn upon first meeting them. This is one of the many areas where Underbelly NZ (and the entire Underbelly series, for that matter) forgets how televised drama has been functioning for the last fifty years.

Instead of reinventing itself for New Zealand audiences Underbelly NZ simply photocopies all of the flaws of the original series and pencils in a story set in New Zealand. Do you want a music montage involving sex, drugs and somebody throwing money in the air in slow motion? Underbelly NZ will not disappoint. Do you want a dumbass narrator who drags us from plot point to plot point? Underbelly NZ will deliver that in spades; whether it’s the narrator saying “to mix a couple of clichés the cat wasn’t exactly among the pigeons but it sure as hell was out of the bag” or adding his own commentary to the end of other people’s conversations like when Marty says “I know how to treat a woman” and the narrator adds “For now anyway” for no reason whatsoever.

The story of Underbelly NZ is your standard issue ‘guy wants to sell drugs and so he does and presumably he’ll get it in the end’ plotline. What that boils down to in this series though is Marty and his mates having a lot of conversations about supply and distribution, which if this wasn’t about marijuana would be a ridiculously dry source of drama. Marty makes a deal with Chinese Jack, then he finds out somebody else made a deal with Chinese Jack, so then he makes another deal with Chinese Jack and so on and so forth. A lot of deals are made, most of them taking place in darkened nightclubs, dingy backrooms or, in a sign of the show’s budget restraints, at night time in alleys and streets where you can’t see the modern day houses through darkness.

Underbelly NZ makes it quite clear that it doesn’t care about its characters; the only dialogue they ever say is either there to provide exposition or to sound cool. Marty will end a business agreement with “do we shake hands or do we compare the size of our dicks?” or Terry Clark will tell off the girl going down on him “don’t you know it’s rude to talk with your mouth full” or Marty will explain why he only wants to sell marijuana “for now we stick to grass, because the grass, my son, is greener.” The cops are even harder done by, allowed to do nothing but talk about where drugs are coming from and pondering over who might be bringing them into the country. Not a single character is given any motivation whatsoever; they do what they do because the plot needs to get to where it needs to get to. Why is Marty trying to control the marijuana business in New Zealand? Because he loves laughing in slow motion while throwing cash in the air? Underbelly NZ doesn’t care for things like character motivation, or giving characters a chance to show off their personality.

The first few episodes of every season of Underbelly have notoriously been the worst, mostly because of the barrage of characters we’re expected to keep track of and because they’re all virtually the same thing – some young guy comes in and wants to make a name for himself in the underworld. Things only start to get interesting when people start getting knocked off, in this first episode when a character we hardly know dies it’s met with a bored shrug. The Underbelly series has copped a lot of flak for its glorification of criminals, and that doesn’t bother me, what bothers me is that those criminals are such empty shells. Underbelly NZ is the ultimate example of style over substance. This is a flashy series that rolls along well enough; it’s not exactly painful to sit through but there is nothing going on under the hood. Underbelly NZ doesn’t care about getting to know any of these characters, it just cares about hitting its story marks; it’s less a television drama then somebody reading out a police report whilst occasionally showing you pictures of boobs to keep you interested.

Good, Alright, Bad Or Ugly?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. James Barnes permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:00 am

    Great review, I think you nailed it. I had the exact same issues with the episode – too many characters, too much exposition. It’s all very well to make a fact-based narrative, but do we really need to meet EVERYONE involved and hear every intracate detail of how the stupid drugs got into the country. Focus more on the main characters and their relationships please Underbelly!

  2. September 22, 2011 1:37 pm

    Perhaps the characters are shallow because they were. Nasty boys playing gangsters who killed people, ruined peoples lives and brought poison and corruption to more than just New Zealand. How do you polish turds like that? Eh?

  3. Jamie Rees permalink
    January 18, 2012 6:10 pm

    I’ll admit that Underbelly has been criticized for being light on plot and character development and heavy on sex and gratuitous nudity. But i don’t think the series is as terrible as the reviewer makes it out to be. Yes the latter seasons are probably not as surprising or inventive as the first season with the great performances from Gyton Grantley, Kat Stewart, Damian Walshe-Howling, Les Hill and Rodger Corser and this is where narration done by Caroline Craig or place holder narrator wasn’t as grating to others, especially this critic. But the series has always entertained me, a great dramatization of Australia’s criminal history, i got to disagree that season 3 wasn’t good, i thoroughly enjoyed it especially performances by Firass Dirani, Emma Booth and Sigrid Thornton. The reviewer takes to task the many problems with underbelly, understandably it’s one of the best dramas in Australia, but even this has problems, a HBO show wouldn’t have. But i believe the style of the show with the narration, the nudity and the words peppered across the screen is anathema to the reviewer, is something he just doesn’t like, so he’s has no problem being overly critical. In summary the show is imperfect, but not god awfully terrible.

  4. Boris permalink
    January 24, 2012 12:45 pm

    Underbelly the best series ever, all of it.

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