Review: Cleverman (Season 2)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Aboriginal superhero series just finished its six-part second series last week. Ambitious and challenging it has made several changes from the first series and was overall more in command of its own style and approach.

To recap. In a country that appears to be Australia (more on that later), the urban population are dealing with the emergence of a different kind of human. Dubbed “hairies” or “subhumans”, these people had been living in small numbers deep in the bush but recently many had moved to the city. With distinctive hair and extra strength and speed, the reaction of the government has been one of fear resulting in the hairies being rounded up and separated from the rest of the population.

In season 1, the focus was on the inner-city district in which the hairies were contained, living side by side with the city’s Aboriginal population. Warru West, an Aboriginal (Gumbaynggirr) community leader was acting as community manager for the population. Meanwhile his half-brother Koen is running a bar and also a shady sideline involving people smuggling. Things change for both of them when Uncle Jimmy West (played by the inimitable Jack Charles) intentionally has himself killed by a supernatural monster and bequeaths his role as “Cleverman” to Koen rather than Warru.

Season 1 spent a lot of time on backstory and establishing the relationships between characters. At the start of Season 2, Warru had betrayed his own family and principles and is working with the increasingly oppressive government. Koen, on the other hand, has accepted that he now has both powers and responsibilities but is unclear how to deal with either.

Aside from the overall improvement in pacing, Season 2 has developed in multiple ways:

  • The overall setting is now more clearly its own alternate world – the City is to Sydney as Metropolis is to New York. The emphasis visually is on very modern buildings (even when showing suburban houses) to create an impression of a very sterile and alienating place. This alt-Australia setting was there in Season 1 in retrospect but now it is much clearer and hence less jarring that the whole socio-political conflict of humans v hairies is apparently confined to just one city.
  • The CGI monster that played a role in Season 1 was also killed in Season 1 and hasn’t been replaced. There are still times when the show falls into the Doctor Who trap of nearly-but-not-quite good enough special effects when a more low-key approach may have been just as effective. However, I think the showrunners are getting more adept at creating a sense of magic.
  • The show is using more locations and there is more sense of movement. In particular, great use was used of the natural bushland in this season.

Yes, it is still far from perfect but mainly through the difference between its ambition and the capacity to carry all the themes in a six-hour series.