Cleverman || Hunter Page-Lochard, Rob Collins || Sci-fi, Dystopia, Contemporary || ★★★★☆ – 4 stars
warnings for: racism, medical abuse/human experimentation, state violence/police violence, sexual violence, general violence/gore,
At once heartbreaking and hopeful, the Australian dystopian series Cleverman follows Aboriginal brothers Koen and Waruu West in the aftermath of a world that has just discovered the existence of Hairypeople.
I’ve been trying to write this review for months, but there’s just so much to talk about, and I have nothing coherent to say, so I’m just going to recommend that you watch this show. Don’t watch it all at once, because I marathoned it, and it kind of fucked me up, because it’s really heavy. I don’t mean it in that maudlin, overwrought way of writers who want sympathy for cheap, but because the way oppression is realised within the world of Cleverman so closely mirrors the way those structures actually play out in real life.
For all this is a fantasy series, it often rings so close to life that it was extremely difficult to watch, but one of the things Cleverman does really well is show how being at the intersections of differently oppressed identities may change the nature of your oppression––for Djukara, for example, this manifests as police brutality and prison abuse. For Araluen, on the other hand, it becomes the basis for sexual exploitation and rape.
But the one thing Cleverman doesn’t do is negate the oppression that exists in real life in favour of its fantasy oppressions. The title of the series, after all, is Cleverman, a position of great importance in many Aboriginal cultures. Much of the cast is Aboriginal, as is the series creator, and within the narrative, Aboriginal rights and racism against Aboriginal Australians is very closely tied with discrimination against Hairypeople. I don’t have much knowledge of Australian racial politics and even less knowledge about Aboriginal cultures, but the way it was handled in the series felt nuanced.
One of the strongest interpersonal dynamics in the series was the relationship between the main characters, half brothers Koen (the titular Cleverman) and Waruu (who more openly covets the position). To be honest, they’re both pretty horrible people, but there is a volatile energy in their mutual hatred (and our initial disdain for them) that really drives the emotional heart of the story forward, even as the sociopolitical events of the plotline belong in the hands of the rich and powerful.
There were a few things that I felt could have been done better. Aside from the possible exception of Latani, most of the women in the narrative felt secondary and sidelined, and all of them felt underdeveloped and underutilised for all that I thought they were the most interesting characters. Most of the portrayals also felt a little regressive, and many of the women have absolutely no agency in their own lives. All this felt quite disconcerting for a series that did so well in other areas (though some of the other characters felt kind of stock-y as well), but I have high hopes that this will be sorted in the second season. Which, if you can’t tell, I’m eagerly waiting for.