Wrapping up the latest Underbelly series

22:03, Sep 21 2011

My concern for Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud was that a combination of budgetary constraints, a relatively shallow talent pool from which to draw a relatively large cast, and poor attention to detail would somehow result in a substandard version of the hit Aussie crime drama - not to mention that parts of the story had already been covered in an earlier series, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.

Those fears would prove unfounded. The team at Screentime have created a series to be proud of, a high-quality portrayal of an earlier chapter in this country's history with drugs, and the fascinating tale of Marty Johnstone, the so-called "Real Mr Asia".

That's not to say the show was faultless. Some of the English and Scottish accents in last night's finale were simply terrible, and the limited budget meant a noticeable lack of locations (especially outdoors) used throughout the show.

I also started to find the narration that drizzled over most scenes absolutely grating by the time the series wound up; we could see what was happening on screen - we didn't need Detective Ben telling us that "this would be the last time Marty did this or that".

But for all the faults - most of which you'd probably find in any local series or crime drama - Underbelly NZ was fascinating to watch, in a morbid kind of way.

We talk all the time about how a truly terrible show, something along the lines of Jersey Shore, is like watching a train wreck. In a weird, same-but-different way, watching the journey Marty Johnstone took over the course of six episodes, knowing how his story ends, was like watching a train wreck in progress. The show wasn't a train wreck, but the character, the real person on which Johnstone was based, certainly was.

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Every time Marty made some mistake - losing a shipment into the ocean, missing payments to his employees in Singapore - I winced. It's an odd feeling: normally, as you watch the story elements that form the core of a show, you don't know the outcome. With Underbelly NZ, we knew where the story, and Marty, was going to end up. Morbid curiosity kept me watching the pieces of Marty's demise fall into place.

I realise that we already know the outcome of many stories on both TV and film, especially those based on true events. But for whatever reason it felt different with Underbelly NZ. It's probably why the narration started to bug me - "I know things don't work out for Marty, you don't need to remind me every five seconds."

It helped that the main roles were well cast: say what you want about some of the minor characters, but Dan Musgrove (Marty) and Thijs Morris (his business partner/eventual murderer Andy Maher) were brilliant, and Jamie Irvine and Holly Shanahan's detectives did a great job with their screen time, most of which was spent clarifying the detail and ensuring the show didn't get swamped in names and faces.

I also loved the attention to detail, particularly in costuming and sets. Yes, there was a lack of outdoor locations, but what we did see on screen was great: the clothing, the interior decorating, even the vehicles, all seemed authentic for the time period (1972-1980). As we've learnt from shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, those kinds of details are the first thing to throw doubt on to the quality of a show.

An interesting, albeit familiar, story focusing on a riveting character on a fascinating journey, that was performed and produced to an extremely high standard - I think Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud was a success.

So did you watch Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud? What did you think of NZ's first effort at adding to the Underbelly franchise? Does it compare with the earlier Underbelly shows? Post your thoughts below ...

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