Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Underbelly, FX, 10 Nov

If you like your drama 'ripped from the headlines', it doesn't get much fresher than this Australian gangland 13-parter; when the show was broadcast domestically earlier in the year, it was banned in the state of Victoria because court cases relating to the events depicted are still in progress.

The series is based on a gang war that erupted in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004. The first part depicts the apparent downfall of egotistical mobster Alphonse Gangitano (played by Vince Colosimo), who swaggers along as the self-styled 'Black Prince of Lygon Street'.

After Gangtano kills an associate over the non-payment of a debt, the episode follows the police's attempts to persuade witnesses to testify. What follows is classic hubris-followed-by-nemesis, as the gangster ignores his bosses' pleas to keep a low profile and believes himself to be untouchable.

In the wake of The Sopranos, most contemporary gangster series are going to look a little pedestrian, and Underbelly is no different. While it's all stylishly presented, the events unfold in a fairly mechanical way and the characters are given little in the way of psychological complexity. There is also a strange lack of a cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, and not even a teaser for the next episode.

Despite this, the based-on-true-events nature of the series creates a bit of curiosity, and its distinct Aussie flavour keeps it fresh. Vince Colosimo is disturbingly imposing as the Black Prince, and would be a shoo-in for Marco Pierre White: The Movie.

The fact that Underbelly includes producer and writer Greg Haddrick among its staff also provides a cue for another of my book recommendations.

I'm not sure how easy it is to get hold of the two volumes of his Top Shelf: Reading and Writing the Best in Australian TV Drama; I picked up my copies in Sydney in 2001. However, I'd recommend anyone thinking of working in TV drama - either soaps or serials - to give it a look.

In Volume 1, Haddrick examines how the current writing systems have developed; how shows are plotted, constructed and script-edited; how style and production methods vary between series and serials; and the influence of the US and British systems. He writes in a highly engaging style that's backed up with entertaining anecdotes.

Volume 2 then presents some of the award-winning scripts analysed in Volume 1, including episodes of Home and Away, Breakers, Good Guys, Bad Guys, Blue Heelers and Wildside.

Together, the two volumes offer an enlightening insight into an area of writing that's often overlooked in favour of more 'glamorous' forms.

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