Underbelly

Produced by Greg Haddrick and Brenda Pam

Out now on DVDUNDERBELLY, THE TV series that dramatised the long-running drug wars in Melbourne, has been a huge hit for Channel Nine.

Despite a Supreme Court decision which prevented the show from going to air in Victoria (where it might have pulled up to a million viewers), Underbelly was one of the most popular shows of the first half of the year. The series has just been released on DVD and Nine Network bosses are now looking to expand the franchise with a prequel.

Nine was always on a winner with the concept: A show about gangsters with lots of drugs, sex and violence has all the elements for a ratings success. But plenty of other high-profile Australian dramas have been launched in recent years only to crash and burn on account of poor writing-so it comes as a relief to be able to say that Underbelly is actually pretty good. It’s great entertainment, with clever dialogue and plotting, terrific production, a cool soundtrack and top-notch actors.

Telling a true story has its advantages, giving events a compelling realism. But this can also create a problem because most people know what’s going to happen; in this case nearly every episode ends with someone being killed!

The writers overcome this hurdle by finding interesting and varied ways to tell similar stories.

The major weakness of Underbelly is that it doesn’t tell us anything new about crime. It doesn’t explore the social context in which the gangland killings occurred.

A major factor in the Melbourne killings was the explosive growth of “recreational” drugs such as ecstasy in the 1990s. Rising players in Melbourne’s underground were suddenly flush with cash, contested territory and had the money and motive to order the assassination of rivals.

The illegal drugs market follows the same competitive dynamics as the legal capitalist economy; it’s just that failure often has a greater degree of finality: death or a long jail sentence.

One of the reasons socialists argue for the decriminalisation of drugs is that it would lead to a drop in violence and allow for a more sensible public discussion about the social causes and health effects of drug use.

Another problem with Underbelly is its failure to examine the nexus between organised crime and police. The show paints the cops as good guys with a few bad apples, a typical TV representation of police.

It touches on police corruption, referring to the prosecution of drug squad detectives that allowed two of the major protagonists in the gangland wars, Carl Williams and Jason Moran, to walk out of prison and continue their violent behaviour.

But there’s a much bigger story here that is yet to be told. Victoria Police has recently been rocked by a scandal involving an assistant commissioner, media director and the head of the Police Association. They are implicated in the leaking of information to a detective suspected of carrying out a gangland murder.

Underbelly is definitely worth a look-it’s one of the better Australian dramas in recent years.

But for a more sophisticated inspection of organised crime and its role in society, I would recommend two superb US dramas: The Sopranos, which is told through the eyes of a New Jersey mafia family, and The Wire, which examines the drug trade in the city of Baltimore and the failure of police, politicians and the media to address the poverty and alienation that sustains it.

Jarvis Ryan

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