A few weeks ago I blogged about Secrets & Lies, an Australian crime drama set in Brisbane. I summed up the first episode thusly:
Manpain. No sympathetic adult women. One person of colour, unsympathetic. The hero has never read a detective novel ever, and is following the How To Look Totally Suss playbook. Nevertheless, the mystery is interesting and I like the setting, so I’m probably going to keep watching.
I thought this series ran for 10 episodes, but it turns out that, no, that’s just the US remake. The Australian series only goes for six episodes — which means it’s done, it’s finished, and I’m about to spoil it for you.
Are you ready?
Because chances are, this is the ending for the US version as well.
Okay. The hero’s young daughter did it.
It’s not made clear how old Eva is meant to be, but “between eight and 12” is the range. She wears her hair in two pigtails, is devoted to her dad, and is the only female character who is both sympathetic to him and not sleeping with him. (Thank God.) She’s an adorable moppet, so of course she killed a five-year-old boy to drive his mum from their street. Of course.
Now, the thing about crime fiction in any medium is that if you’re going to go dark — and child-murderers is very dark — you need to make the story worthwhile. You can’t just chuck it in as a shocking twist that also conveniently punishes the kid’s mother for not loving the hero enough. The actress was incredibly good at portraying both Adorable Moppet and Child Sociopath, but the writing didn’t justify it.
Of course, I really wanted the hero, Ben Gundelach, to be guilty. I wanted this whole thing to be his unreliable narrative of denial mixed with guilt mixed with actualfax murderous intent, because that was the only way his characterisation would make any sense. Because in the wake of finding the body of the child, Thom, he goes on a rampage of lying to police, hiding evidence, accusing neighbours, assaulting grown men, assaulting teenage boys, and more. In the final episode, he breaks into the home of the bereaved mother armed with a shovel.
His behaviour was actually scary! And sending out all sorts of red flags in terms of potential for violence and irrational rage. Yet the narrative was all, “Well, you know how hard it is for men when they’re accused of murder…”
Now, I don’t need characters to be squeaky clean. One of the most tragic and compelling moments in Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing is when Theis Birk Larsen, the father of the murdered girl at the centre of the plot, has his cronies abduct a teacher from her school and torture him into confessing. It’s absolutely clear how Thies’s behaviour is driven by guilt and fear — but we’re not meant to cheer him on. And at the end of the series, he goes to jail.
Secrets & Lies wanted us to be on Ben’s side. And I just can’t do that. And in real life, even white, middle-class male homeowners are charged with assault when they punch a teenage boy, even if the outcome is usually just a good behaviour bond and a fine.
So at the centre of this story, we have a deeply unpleasant hero, who isn’t even especially competent. And he’s surrounded by women who should be really interesting female characters … except we’re meant to hate them. A quick round up:
Christy, his wife. As the series opens, she has just told him she’s leaving him. But it’s not his fault he had an affair with Jess, the woman across the road and fathered her son! (Yeah, I was totally right with that prediction, by the way.) He only did it because Christy had had an abortion, and even though he said he was totally okay with it, he wasn’t! And she is career-driven and terse, not vulnerable and sexually available like Jess!
Tasha, his teenage daughter. She’s on the cusp of adulthood and independence, and is almost certainly sexually active, and she doesn’t buy her father’s bullshit for a second! HOW DARE SHE?
Eva, the adorable moppet who loves her dad and blames women (Christy and Jess) for breaking up the family. And she’s really sorry she killed Thom, because it caused her father manpain.
Jess, the Gundelachs’ neighbour, mother of Thom, occasional lover of Ben. She’s perfect in every way — I mean, pretty much a doormat — until the second-last episode, when Ben discovers that she has bipolar disorder (!) and is occasionally paranoid (!!) and violent (!!!). And she had an earlier daughter, who died of SIDS, and everyone knows that’s just code for “my mum’s a crazy bitch who killed me to death”.
After this SHOCKING REVELATION, Jess spends the rest of the series Being Crazy, rolling her eyes and laughing inappropriately and making false rape accusations against Ben. I’d have ragequit on the spot, but with 19 minutes left of the entire series, I was in too deep.
They’re the main female characters. There’s also Jess’s Sister, Who Doesn’t Take Ben Seriously For Some Reason, and the Bitchy, Slutshaming Older Neighbour, and the Neighbour Who Totally Hides That Her Husband Is A Paedophile.
All of these people are white, because this is set in a magical alternate Brisbane with no people of colour. In six hours of TV, we had exactly two non-white characters: a guy who appeared in one scene, was pissy to Ben for little things like NOT DOING HIS JOB and vanished; and an extra, who didn’t actually speak. Both were in the first episode. After that, it’s just a sea of white. Even the taxi drivers are white, which is … demographically unlikely.
(Other ways this is set in a magical alternate universe version of Brisbane: a week or so before Christmas, a character wears a puffy jacket because it’s raining. Someone lives in Brisbane and OWNS a puffy jacket. In the week between Christmas and NYE, people are wearing long pants. It’s weird, is what I’m saying.)
In short, the series was a strange and off-putting exercise in accidentally demonstrating male privilege. It wasn’t particularly well-written. The mystery didn’t hang together cohesively. The hero was repulsive.
The biggest mystery about the whole thing is that ABC (the American network, not Our ABC) were already producing a remake before this had even aired. Have they thrown out the scripts and started again from scratch? Certainly they’ve made the characters’ names more Anglo-Saxon and less Western-European-Ethnic — “Gundelach” has become “Garner” and Corniell, the police detective, has become “Cornell”. But said detective has ALSO been genderflipped, and is now played by Juliette Lewis, which intrigues me, and also goes a long way towards fixing the Women Problem. (There’s also an African-American character, who I think is Cornell’s offsider or similar, but it doesn’t look like a big part.)
I wanted this to be successful, but also actually good. It was neither, and I’m disappointed.
On the other hand, this is actually a good time for Australian TV. This weekend sees the premiere of The Gods of Wheat Street, a magic-realist (!) series about an Aboriginal family (!!). My hopes are high, people. Showrunner Jon Bell has worked on Redfern Now, which is a hell of a better pedigree than Secrets & Lies had.