Alan Waldman :
Australian true-crime series ‘Underbelly’ not for faint-hearted

This powerful show chronicles actual bloody underworld wars and police malfeasance in Sydney and Melbourne from 1976 to 2004.

underbelly s3

By Alan Waldman | The Rag Blog | September 15, 2014

[In his weekly column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries, and comedies from Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

Underbelly is the overall title of three exceptionally fine Australian 13-part TV drama series that tell the true stories (virtually blow-by-blow histories) of actual drug gang wars and police efforts to solve crimes, hampered in many cases by major corruption.

All three series (39 total episodes—nearly 1,800 minutes of dramatized nonfiction) are on Netflix and Netflix Instant. Pilot episodes can be seen here, here , and here.

The trio of shows won 34 major Australian Awards and 34 other nominations. These included two Best Drama Series honors, four Best Screenplay Awards, three Best Director statuettes, and 12 Best Actor/Actress awards.

Waldman’s film and TV treasures you may have missed

DVD Verdict’s David Johnson effused:

Wow! Who knew Australia was such a dangerous place to live? Sure, I knew about the poisonous snakes and the insects that want to eat you, but I wasn’t aware of the drug wars that raged throughout the region for latter third of the twentieth century. That’s right — Aussie gangsters will mess your @#$% up! This is TV drama you’d only find on stateside pay cable, with all manner of bloodshed, profanity, and liberal nudity.

In the three series, most characters have the names of the real people they represent, although cop names had to be changed and a few living criminals have noms de TV.

Season One: Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities starts off in swinging ’70s when drugs began saturating Australia and their Melbourne distribution was controlled by mob boss Bob Trimbole (Best Actor winner Roy Billing) and New Zealand entrepreneur Terry Clark (Matthew Newton). Clark starts out as a mid-level marijuana slinger, but the buckets of cash generated by selling the hard stuff motivate them to corner the market. Competition arises, the Federal Police work every angle they can think of to bring them down, and ultimately the pair have to flee to England and Ireland.

Of 2,728 viewers, more than 93.9% gave it thumbs up and 33.4% rated it a perfect 10. It was very strong with all demos but strongest with females 45 and older. Underbelly was a critical and ratings success, being described as “Australia’s best-ever crime drama.”

Season Two: Underbelly: The Golden Mile (2010) is set in the most dangerous street in Sydney, King’s Cross, where the drug life has propelled ambitious, two-bit thug John Ibrahim into a high-stakes world of drug-dealing, battling the established Bayeh Brothers for control of the product flow, resulting in a trail of bodies. Meanwhile, the authorities grappled with personal and political problems and their own corruption.

The first episode, with 2,584,000 viewers, had the biggest audience for a non-sporting program premiere since the introduction of people meters in Australia in 2001 — and a 23.3% bigger audience than the previous year’s highest-rated broadcast.

underbelly cast

Underbelly: Key cast of third series.

Season Three: Underbelly: War on the Streets is set in Melbourne, where an all-out gang war goes down between the powerful Carlton Crew and savage up-and-comer Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley, winner of two Best Actor awards). Between 1998 and 2010, no fewer than 36 rival gangsters were slain — 10 under orders from Williams. Many of the murders are depicted in the series. The police Task Force Purana stumbles around for quite a while, until reforms give it some teeth.

Just to give you a flavor of the third series: Alphonse Gangitano, the self-styled “Black Prince of Lygon Street,” kills a man at a party over a small debt and, with Jason Moran’s assistance, injures 13 innocent people. During his trial, Gangitano is murdered by Jason, although the killing goes unsolved. The Moran brothers buy a pill press and employ Carl Williams to produce their drugs. Carl secretly begins making his own supply and forms an alliance with Moran rival Tony Mokbel.

When Carl is busted by the police, Jason discovers his double-cross and shoots him in the stomach. When Jason is arrested, Mark Moran takes over the drug business, selling Tony Mokbel out to a corrupt officer from the drug squad. Carl kills Mark with the assistance of drug dealer Dino Dibra, who establishes Carl’s alibi. Lewis Moran hires Andrew “Benji” Veniamin to avenge his stepson, believing the killer to be Dibra. Benji kills Dibra, then offers his services to Carl and becomes his bodyguard, although Carl is eventually jailed. Carl’s wife, Roberta, then has an affair with Benji. Are you getting the idea? There’s lots, lots more of the drama and mayhem to come.

I was fascinated by all the stories and kept running to Wikipedia under “Melbourne Gangland Slayings” to see what happened when. The scripts were very accurate, although they couldn’t cover everything. There were lots of fascinating characters and episodes, powerfully written and performed. I’m not mentioning the writers’ and actors’ credits, just because they are unknown over here.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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