In the War of the Content Providers, product-hungry networks, beyond making their own original series have begun to look farther afield for reinforcements. American television shows have long traveled the world, as anyone who has spent a night in a halfway decent foreign hotel knows, but historically, American television has been limited to … American television, with some British imports for spice.
Even Australia, where they not only speak English but a particularly adorable version of it, was late to enter the American market. They have been sending us their actors for years, mostly to play Americans. (You would be surprised.) Now we are seeing more of their own shows.
Australian television is interesting in a particular way, because the country comprises a kind of an alternate reality version of our own; it looks like us, sort of. (You can say the same about Canada, but Canada has stood in for the U.S. so often in our shows it might as well be us — like, North Washington, and North New York, and North North Dakota.) An even younger country than the United States — if you reckon only by the white people — great tracts of its landscapes (along with its cities and industries) recall the American West. They love country music in Australia; they wear cowboy hats. Their colonial history with the indigenous population is similarly tainted. And, like us, they do like a mystery.
Three interesting examples of Australian crime shows have arrived here from there, more or less recently.
“Dead Lucky,” which streams on Sundance Now, is the most conventional. Its main point of interest is star Rachel Griffiths, whom many Americans will have met as Brenda in “Six Feet Under,” in the role of Sydney police detective Grace Gibbs. There are many familiar elements here — the rule-bending detective with a dead (junior) partner and a problematic new one (Yoson An); problematic superiors; a problematic ex-husband (they share a daughter) and his problematic new girlfriend. (That they all work at the same place is less usual.) Grace is problematic herself, a rule bender, a troublemaker — but she’s the one we trust.
The plot is twisty. The killer is known to the police; they just can’t lay their hands on him. But there are other mysteries to solve, all entwined with and sometimes masking the one seemingly at the series’ center. (Still, you may get to the end ahead of the cops.) Social commentary — about immigration, racism, guns — is woven into the storylines.
Just finishing its cable run on FX is “Mr. Inbetween,” a half-comical criminal slice-of-life series created by and starring Scott Ryan and based on his 2005 mockumentary “The Magician,” about a Melbourne hitman. (It’s still available at fxnetworks.com and for purchase from Amazon.) In the series, already renewed for a second season, Ryan’s character, Ray Shoesmith, is not specifically a hit man — all to the good, given how crowded that market has become — but a kind of freelance hood whose main adversaries generally turn out to be the people he works with.
Like “Breaking Bad’s” fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, Ray has a competence and patience that make him better than the other bad guys around him and attractive to viewers in spite of the fact that he’s something of a sociopath (if an oddly reasonable one). Apart from his daughter (Chika Yasumura) — select viewers will recognize Australian web star Natalie Tran as Ray’s ex-wife — and new girlfriend Ally (Brooke Satchwell), for whom he has real affection, he visits the straight world like a tourist. Not being personally acquainted with people of this sort, I can’t say whether making Ray likable is a cheat or not, but it’s dramatically workable.
By keeping the action at a low boil, even at critical junctures, “Mr. Inbetween” functions less as a thriller than a character study, often enough as a comedy, and occasionally as a critique of toxic masculinity. Indeed, it comes most alive in scenes where nothing much is happening, in a way that nevertheless holds your interest.
Judy Davis, first famous here for “My Brilliant Career” and known for much else afterward, is an officer of the law in the epic “Mystery Road” (Acorn TV), a series sequel to a 2013 Australian film of the same name, also starring Aaron Pedersen as aboriginal detective Jay Swan. (Acorn is the home of several Australian mysteries, some of which have gone on to other streaming services, including “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” set in 1920s Melbourne, the Guy Pearce-starring “Jack Irish” and “Mr. & Mrs. Murder,” a sort of down-market “Thin Man” mystery whose detectives run an industrial cleaning service that takes them to crime scenes.)
Set in the dusty northwestern region called the Kimberly, it begins with the disappearance of young men, and it is unclear for a long while whether it is a case of missing persons or murder, just before the uncle of one (Wayne Blair) is released from prison, having served time for the rape of a minor. Davis’ flinty, upright Emma James leads the compact local constabulary and is the disinterested half-owner of a large ranch her brother (Colin Friels) is about to sell to a local aboriginal group, and where the missing boys had been working. Swan is sent from a bigger city to help James in her investigation; inevitably, they clash.
It takes place in big spaces in which people can look very small, but director Rachel Perkins continually resolves the action into life-sized events; it has the sweep of an old-school Western, with the gloss scraped off. (You may think of “Chinatown” as well.) The cinematography, by Mark Wareham, pays respect to the environment, and to the built environment, without flattering it. The motel room Swan puts up in is no prettier nor uglier than such places are in life; everything feels natural, yet (as moving pictures can) a little more alive than usual.
Perkins keeps the telling straightforward, even though the story is not. One is liable to get it all wrong more than once. It’s less a matter of red herrings, though, than of becoming less sure, about the plot, and about the people — you think you know them, but people will fool you.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
Where: Sundance Now
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)
Where: Acorn TV
Rating: Not Rated