“Cleverman is a step forward for Aboriginal storytelling but it’s built on the shoulders of mediocre writing and male machismo.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Ryan Griffen 👨🏽🇦🇺
Writers: Michael Miller 👨🏼🇦🇺 (5 eps), Jon Bell 👨🏽🇦🇺 (2 eps), and Jane Allen 👩🏼🇦🇺 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Cleverman has a unique concept: a sci-fi superhero show that tackles racism, using “Hairypeople” as allegory for indigenous Australians. "I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that [my son] could connect with," says creator Ryan Griffen, who is a self-professed “light-skinned Aboriginal person.” Unfortunately, as commendable this premise is, execution simply falls short. The writing is plodding, more entranced with painstakingly crafting its universe than telling a narrative. The lead character Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) is an angst-ridden boy who lacks the charm of a successful anti-hero, and the physical depiction of Hairypeople is distractingly kitschy with their tufty, all-body fur, lacking the polish and broader appeal of more familiar humanoids as seen in, say, Teen Wolf or True Blood.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES
Women are firmly in the support role in Cleverman. All “Hairies” are subjugated in this show, but the women suffer especially rote forms of oppression. An innocent, young girl is sacrificed in the first episode to establish the emotional tenor of the show. Her mother, Araluen (Tasma Walton), is traded off to become a sex worker catering to humans with a fetish for furries. Meanwhile, Araluen’s daughter Latani (Rarriwuy Hick) is the best female character of the series and she displays decision-making, but her sole existence is not enough to make up for the quagmire of stereotypes Cleverman uses to inform its female characters.
For flat but inoffensive characters, see Nerida (Jada Alberts) and Charlotte (Frances O’Connor) who are good people but subject to the whims of their powerful husbands. They are kept in the dark about political and supernatural goings-ons, lending them an especial sense of helplessness. Nerida tries to communicate with her husband Waruu (Rob Collins) through tearful appeals but to no avail, as he carries his own burden in a show of toxic masculinity. Meanwhile, Charlotte is preoccupied with female duties such as healing people, trying to get pregnant, and being a general beacon of light and honor. Perhaps their storylines deepen in the second season, but as of the first they are firmly rote characters.
What really tanks this score is Ash (Stef Dawson). Her character is actively offensive, a “fiery” redhead who is part owner of a bar but spends more time snogging her boyfriend Blair (Ryan Corr) in public or cheating on him with Koen behind closed doors rather than being a businesswoman. Her dialogue consists of submissive questions posed to Koen, or alternatively, sexualized bravado which feels like a flawed notion of female strength as imagined by pre-teen boys. In short, her character is never given any more depth than being a bar floozy, all the way up until her ignominious fridging halfway through Season 1 which proves her sole existence as a plot device, both as a political chess piece as well as an emotional spark to cause strife between two childhood friends, Blair and Koen. Note, this dialogue comes right after Ash’s death, making it feel all the more disrespectful to her dead body:
Blair: “Say ‘I screwed Ashley.’”
Koen: “...I screwed Ash.”
Blair: “How many times?
Koen: “It didn’t mean anything.”
Blair: “So you screwed my girlfriend and you didn’t mean anything?” [slow clap] “Clever man.”
The crux of Cleverman is the examination of discrimination against Aboriginal people. The show handles this well, and it’s clear that the heartbeat of the series revolves around racial identity. The diversity in casting is robust and authentic, as several actors hail from Aboriginal backgrounds including leads Koen, Waruu, and Latani among other support characters.
There are not nearly enough Aboriginal storytellers sharing their unique perspectives or tapping into exciting mythologies for the screen. That being said, race in Cleverman is handled with about as much finesse as sledgehammer. Hairypeople are consistently subject to verbal and physical abuse, forced to live in concentration camps and hunted down like runaway slaves. In fact, Cleverman reminds me of slave stories like Roots from the 1970s or Amistad from 1997, which had their seminal roles in history but had not yet progressed far enough to examine the complex systems of injustice that survive today. Similarly, Cleverman succeeds in telling the audience that racism is bad but fails to explore what can be done about it.
Personally, I crave more maturity and nuance in portrayals of racial identity, especially for marginalized groups that seldom see depictions beyond their historical struggle. Rather than another season of torture for Hairypeople, I would love to see Aboriginal actors star in love stories, comedies, dramas, and other modern, positive pieces. If heavy-handed Cleverman is the first step to getting there, then so be it.
Nonexistent. I wouldn’t trust this show to handle it well, either. The series is bursting at the seams with a straight male gaze, full of toxic masculinity and a palpable misunderstanding of what female strength is. (Hint: It’s not cleavage and it isn’t the murder of your rapist.) I feel like the writers would combust if forced to write a complex LGBTQ character.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.38/5
Cleverman has such a great concept and I was genuinely excited to see a reimagining of the Aboriginal myth of the Yowie. Unfortunately, in its single-minded pursuit of building a macho dystopia, women are forced into backwards depictions and the overall story suffers from malaise. I hope the opportunities afforded the diverse writers and actors of Cleverman will launch great talents such as Rob Collins or Rarriwuy Hick into more complex narratives in the future. But in the meantime, while this is a step forward for Aboriginal storytelling, it’s built on the shoulders of mediocre writing and male machismo.