TV: Best finished, best starting

While much of the TV world is on an unexpeted holiday, local TV will be springing back into action in the next few weeks. Our TV season starts again then, with a bunch of new local offerings, and plenty of new US stuff that hasn’t been here yet.

Starting next week on Ten is “Burn Notice”, a US spy comedy/drama that I’ve heard a lot of good things about. Apparently, a “burn notice” is what a spy gets when they’re fired from the job, which is probably never a good situation when you’re trying to retrench a trained killer. Spotted as the lead is Jeffrey Donovan, who I did recognise from a small stint last year in “Crossing Jordan”, but I was more familiar with Gabrielle Anwar as a femme fatale, and a slightly tubby-looking, but no doubt entertaining Bruce Campbell as the main characters sidekick/gadget man.

It looks quite offbeat, which is almost a given now, action packed, and entertaining. It’s a USA Network cable show, which is always a pointer to quality — you’re much more likely to find something new and good from US cable now than network. It’s not a guarantee, but you’ve far better odds.

And I don’t even know where I read it (John Roger’s blog I think), but it’s had excellent word of mouth reviews online, from writers, critics and other smart people I would listen to. Since the Web is the new “watercooler” for gossip and reviews now, chat from the right people is often one of the best pointers to new show quality now.

Just finished this week is the outstanding local drama “East West 101”, which was no doubt criminally underwatched due to being on almost entirely in the non-ratings period, and on SBS. Much like “The Circuit”, which was also rated far too poorly on SBS, despite probably being the best local drama of 2007, “East West 101” takes the familiar SBS pattern of storytelling in a particular Australian ethnic community, this time into a police/crime story framework. It focuses on the Australian Muslim community, with an Iraqi-born cop Zane Malik (Don Hany), dealing with his life as a top-level detective, while trying to live happily with his family, including his elderly father who was left brain-damaged after a robbery 20 years previously.

On the job, Malik’s main foil is angry, bitter and racist cop Ray Crowley (William McInnes, in a role unlike he’s ever been seen). Crowley’s basically a good cop, but full of so many personality flaws that he can’t help but screw up regularly. The team they work with is an impressive (and highly multicultural) bunch, and the often ghastly crimes they deal with each week are often ripped from the headlines, starting with the Lebanese community and a situation where a cop and a teenage boy are left dead. Later cases involved the aboriginal community, gay community, the drug world, Serbian/Bosnian communities, Asian community and Islander community.

It paints a dark but realistic portrait of Sydney, with a team that by design only ever
see the worst of people. Crowley deals with the death of his estranged son from a drug overdose by threatening and ultimately murdering the dealer responsible, while Malik finds a solid lead about who shot his father years ago.

While it’s easy to say that Malik is the good guy and Crowley the bad, they both have their flaws (though Malik is clearly less flawed — his family and religion keep him grounded, unlike Crowley, who has neither). Many common themes of crime dramas pop up, such as the problems of bureaucracy and the difficulties of police life, but the character and settings give it a very different, and refreshing, change of scenery.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and the production values are high, with episodes directed by TV veteran Peter Andrikidis (Farscape, Wildside). Hany and McInnes are excellent, with both incredibly different from previous roles (Hany doesn’t even look like his past work; it’s amazing what a beard can do to obscure your previous look). Without being too familiar with Muslim culture, it was good to see a deep and largely positive view of Muslims in Australia, even within a crime context. As I mentioned before, Malik is kept grounded by his family and his faith, and the depiction of both is familar yet unique.

The only real negatives here are the fact that it only went for six episodes, and the fact it’s on SBS. Congratulations to SBS for making this series, and with the “ethnic” content maybe they’re the only ones that would, but if this had even been on the ABC (what the hell are they doing with drama these days?), it would likely get 2-3 times the audience, and much more attention. I’m glad we can see where SBS’s ad money is going, but this quality stuff still just won’t get enough notice. And only six episodes? Unlike some of their other series (R.A.N.), this one clearly needs a second season. Even US cable length would demand double that.

Apparently SBS is releasing East West 101 on DVD next month. Anyone who likes good drama but missed this series (likely most of you), should be pre-ordering now.

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