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Australian import 'Cleverman' explores race, class and the superhuman

Australian import 'Cleverman' explores race, class and the superhuman
Waruu (Rob Collins), left, and Maliyan (Adam Briggs) in the first episode of the Sundance TV series "Cleverman." (Sundance TV)

"Cleverman," a new six-part drama from Australia premiering Wednesday on SundanceTV (more or less simultaneously with its debut down under), imagines the sudden appearance of an ancient, not-quite-human race alongside our own. Naturally, they are rounded up, locked away and variously exploited.

Commissioned by the Indigenous department of the state-owned Australian network ABC, the series has been celebrated for the high proportion of native Australians in front of the camera and behind it. (Ryan Griffen, who created the series, wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero for his son; "Cleverman" elides "clever man," or shaman, into an echo of Superman.) For international appeal, Iain Glen ("Game of Thrones") and Frances O'Connor ("Mr. Selfridge") have been cast alongside Australian national treasures like Deborah Mailman and Jack Charles.

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We are in in the near future – you can tell it's the near future by the paper-thin computer tablets, the drones and nothing else – in an unnamed city Australians might recognize as Sydney but without any of the better-known landmarks. It is one of those places that, like Metropolis or Gotham, stands for everywhere.

Newly come into this world are the "Hairies," so called because ... they're hairy. Their arrival is mysterious – it's suggested that they've kind of been there all along, "so peaceful, in fact, none of us knew they existed until six months ago." But what happened to get them noticed is never said.

Now, the city is full of signs reading, "Hairy sightings? Call the hotline" and "Harboring a Hairy is an offense." To blend in, some shave, and those Hairies are called "shavers."

Reluctantly at the center of this story is Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), estranged from his family and running a bar with friends when not selling out Hairies to the authorities for a little extra cash. One evening he is presented a mystical wooden club from his Uncle Jimmy (Charles), who is generally understood to be in touch with the spirit world called the Dreaming.

Not long afterward, Koen begins to have seizures, hear voices and glimpse the future,  and what I take to be the cosmological birth and rebirth of everything. One of his eyes goes white. He will take a while getting used to the idea that he is any kind of chosen one -- and so will his more conscientious half brother Waruu (Rob Collins), a self-appointed spokesman for the Hairy people, who has had his eye on that job, the new Cleverman, for himself.

That there is a racial allegory at work is nothing you will be left to work out alone. ("They used to say that about my people too," says one Indigenous woman who hears the Hairies described as "animals.")  The logo for the Containment Authority, in charge of ghettoizing them, pointedly recalls a swastika. "I think you might like this one," says O'Connor's character, a doctor who works among them in the restricted zone, showing off a painting in her house. "It's a political statement about skin color."

And yet the writers have given them relatively little agency. They are superhumanly strong and fast and live hundreds of years, qualities that are key to one of the series' animating storylines, but they come off often as childishly meek or childishly aggressive. There are no Hairy intellectuals or activists. Humans imprison and enslave them, and humans also speak for them.

The series is "comic book" not just in its subject matter but also in the sense that the natural implications of extraordinary circumstances are not bothered with. Characters break in and out of what should be secure locations with uncanny ease. And the narrative can  sometimes be confusing. But the multiple, long arcs become legible, and sort themselves out satisfactorily in the end, if not in any way surprisingly.

And there are good, under-the-top performances that enliven characters fetched from mothballs: the media mogul in search of great power (Glen); the depraved politician; the ambitious reporter; the amoral scientist; the sadistic warder. Page-Lochard is moodily effective as the slow-to-waken champion. (More than one character is told they need to choose a side.) But Mailman suggests that a 43-year-old woman with emphysema is the toughness the world really needs.

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