Superheroes are a dime a dozen these days, and in the midst of a summer blockbuster season saturated with Marvel team-ups and villainous DC squads, it’d be understandable if Cleverman, Sundance TV’s latest sci-fi offering, flew under a lot of viewers’ radars. After all, too much of the same thing can get boring pretty quickly.
Thankfully, creator Ryan Griffen’s gritty urban Australian epic — which premieres tonight on SundanceTV — has a lot to set it apart. When the showrunner set out to create the six-part series that follows a group of gifted beings struggling to survive amongst a human species that fears them, he did so with one goal in mind: to give his young son, a comic book junkie like his dad, an idol who looked like him. Thus was born Cleverman, the aboriginal superhero show we never even knew we needed.
The series is steeped in lore that, while familiar to those Down Under, probably won’t be as recognizable to Stateside viewers — which in some ways makes it even more interesting to watch. The series also isn’t lacking in contemporary resonance. Focused on the conflict between humans and a race known as “Hairypeople” — creatures from ancient mythology named for the copious amounts of fur covering their bodies, as well as their supernatural abilities — Cleverman toes the line between straight-up sci-fi fantasy and an allegory-heavy social commentary.
The show explores how governments can use propaganda and the media to stoke fears. The Hairypeople, beings that have peacefully coexisted with humans for thousands of years — they pre-date humanity — find themselves hunted by a military outfit known as the Containment Authority charged with rounding up any Hairy who dare leave The Zone, a kind of makeshift ghetto for poor aboriginal humans and Hairies with nowhere else to go. The two groups live side by side in squalor, occasionally fighting each other, but mostly working together to convince those in The City — a place where society’s upper-crust dwells — that the Hairypeople aren’t a threat. That task is made more difficult when bodies begin turning up. Innocent civilians are being slaughtered by some kind of beast, though the media and the government are quick to place the blame on their supernaturally enhanced co-inhabitants.
It’s a lot of history and backstory to drop in viewers’ laps, which is where the series’ main characters come in. Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) a young man estranged from his family and aboriginal community, makes his living as a barkeep. He also happens to have a side job renting apartments to Hairypeople looking to escape The Zone without drawing attention from the government. He’s a dark, brooding young man, one with plenty of skeletons in his closet. He also sports a pretty flexible morality, which we learn after he rats out his new tenants to the authorities in order to make some extra cash.
The family of Hairies he betrays, a man named Boondee (Tony Briggs) his wife Araluen (Tasma Walton) son Djukara (Tysan Towney) and daughter Latani (Rarriwuy Hick) suffer violence at the hands of the CA. The men are sent to a lock-up facility, where they are tortured and mistreated while Araluen is forced to sell her body to patrons with fur-fetishes and her daughter lives a life on the run.
Koen’s estranged half-brother Waruu, the self-appointed leader of those living in The Zone, is Koen’s opposite in almost every way. Well-intentioned with political power and the support of the Hairies, Waruu hopes to be the one to lead his people out of the darkness. He also hopes to assume the mantle of Cleverman — a person imbued with powers that serves as a conduit between the world of the living and The Dreaming (a spiritual realm that binds past, present, future and is home to all kinds of spirits) — from his Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles). Waruu’s admirable goals are marred by his own narcissism, and when it’s revealed that his black sheep of a brother has been chosen as the next Cleverman, Waruu struggles with how to move forward in his position of leadership.
If you haven’t guessed by now, there’s a lot going on in this series. With over 60,000 years of aboriginal stories to tell, Cleverman does a good job of trying to focus its plot and zero in on its two main heroes (or anti-heroes) while still packing plenty of action and showing a surprising amount of depth.
The show is at its strongest when it puts the spotlight on the Hairypeople and their plight, as government officials brand the beings as sub-humans, restrict them to certain areas of the city, and propose building walls and putting an end to illegal smuggling. (Some of this hits a little too close to home.) Similarly, Boondee and Djukara’s punishment in prison — branding, the use of racial slurs like “monkey” and “jungle sh*t” — hark back to an even more troubling era. Griffen makes sure to remind people that though this is a futuristic imagining of a mythical race, the idea that we alienate and discriminate against others based on our own unjustified fears isn’t anything new.
The series isn’t without some problems, most notably its proclivity for jumping from one character arc to the next without the amount of backstory necessary to get viewers invested in the people on screen: Here’s a CEO of a major corporation (Game of Thrones star Iain Glen) and his wife, a pro-bono doctor played by Frances O’Connor, struggling to get pregnant while experimenting on Hairypeople genetics. Here’s Koen and his predestined journey as a Cleverman. Here’s Waruu, sleeping with a TV reporter while juggling his commitment to his family and his responsibility as a leader. Here’s a woman being experimented on who has connections to Koen. Here is Koen’s best friend Blair (Ryan Corr) and his girlfriend Ash (Stef Dawson) whom he sleeps around with on occasion. Here’s a monster attacking random civilians for no apparent reason. There are some great characters and even better conflicts, but the series can also feel unfocused.
That said, Griffen’s dedication to his source material — years of aboriginal folklore passed down from one generation to the next — is palpable on-screen, not just through his storytelling, but through the show’s casting. Over 80% of the actors on-screen are indigenous, which makes the show not only incredibly diverse, but authentic, as well. In an age of television (and film) where those qualities are sorely lacking, especially in the superhero genre, Cleverman isn’t just refreshingly original, it’s groundbreaking.