Underbelly’s back! Only it’s not called Underbelly anymore. It would be both unfair and inaccurate to suggest the name-change came about because of a slow but steady trashing of the brand thanks to a long line of sub-par series over the years. (Reportedly the real reason why they changed the name was to do with claiming the Federal Government’s 20% Producer Offset tax rebate. The money-back offer cuts out after 65 episodes of a series and they couldn’t persuade the Tax Office that each Underbelly series was its own stand-alone show, so no money back for them unless they made a different series.) But the fact that it seems reasonable to assume they changed the name for promotional reasons underlines just how far the Underbelly brand has fallen.
The first series back in 2007 was smart, sharp, based on current events and – in a move that’s easy to overlook these days – wasn’t afraid to push the envelope a little style-wise. Unfortunately, the series that followed tended to lean more on the style – which rapidly became a code-word for “naked ladies” – and not so much on the other attributes. It also tended to look to Sydney for its crime stories, which proved problematic: while Melbourne’s crime scene has traditionally been about stand-alone operators and hard men in fringe areas such as the docks, organised crime up north has actually been organised – and tales of systemic corruption tend not to work quite so well in a series aiming itself at glamorous crims and their evil ways.
Underbelly’s attempts to look at crime back in the 1920s and 1930s with the Sydney-based Razor and the Melbourne-focused Squizzy had their own problems: Razor’s storyline was repetitive and unfocused, while Squizzy’s production values were so low it would have been a more realistic evocation of Roaring ’20s Melbourne if it had been filmed at Sovereign Hill. So having the series – with some surface alterations and a name change to Fat Tony & Co, which describes the contents without adding much of anything as far as atmosphere goes – return to the same turf as the first series was good news for fans of local crime drama. But a lot has changed since the first Underbelly series, and not just that many of the old familiar faces now look ten years older but are playing characters ten years younger.
The first series was content to let the facts speak for themselves, showing the cast of characters as petty thugs with big ideas who wiped themselves out over the drug trade in Melbourne; this one opens with Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo) at a bar telling us the Carlton Crew run Melbourne and he runs the Carlton Crew. Which, considering he’s dead before the end of the first episode, seems a little beside the point.
But that’s this series all over: it’s fallen for its own hype and thinks the violent brutal losers whose story it’s telling are really giants deserving of our respect and awe. It’s what killed the franchise in the first place: you don’t have to keep telling us how great these criminals are. Just show us what they’re like warts and all and we’ll make up our own minds.
Written by Anthony Morris