Wrapping up the latest Underbelly series

Last updated 10:03 22/09/2011

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.

20110922Those 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.

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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16 comments
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johnsmith   #1   10:21 am Sep 22 2011

I for one was really impressed with this show, had a few gratuitous scenes, especially the girl fight in episode 5 which was unnecessary.

However the main cast were really good, and iv got to say I thought Jamie Irvine was simply brilliant. Who are his parents? I bet they're chuffed.

I did notice a few tacky lines sprinkled throughout, however the cast did really well to deliver them with conviction which softened their edge a bit. "Marty rhymes with party" must have started sounding really demorilising after a while, so good on everyone for making the most out of a limited budget.

Jared   #2   10:25 am Sep 22 2011

Your far too generous compared to the other Underbellys, 'Land of the Long Green Cloud' is complete rubbish. I only watch it because I thought it could get better, it hasn't.

capital gal   #3   10:35 am Sep 22 2011

I thought the script, esp in the first few episodes, was pretty clunky but once it hit it's stride it was great to watch. I'm glad they kept it to 6 episodes too. The voice overs annoyed me as well. Yes, I knew Marty died but there were other elements that were ruined by the whole "little did he know he'd be dead in 8 months"

Noshow   #4   10:43 am Sep 22 2011

I wasn't fussed with this series and often found myself not even watching it for periods during each episode and I think it really came down to the fact that almost everything had already been covered in an early series.

I don't think it helped in that regard that we got flash forwards throughout the series either, something the other Underbelly series have not done.

That said there was some really good acting but yes, some dodgy accents. And I had to laugh at the very retro, very grainy panoramic city shots that must've been lifted from the TVNZ archives.

And I liked this series portrayal of Terry Clark much more than the Aussie version. More true to form, by all accounts.

Roll on Razor next week!

Shamoo   #5   10:57 am Sep 22 2011

Great, but needed more nudity ala the Australian versions.

Nicola   #6   12:40 pm Sep 22 2011

I thought it was really well done and totally agree with you in regard to the acting of both Dan Musgrove and Thijs Morris. I missed the Australian Underbelly Mr Asia but am currently taping it so I can watch it now - hope I've got all the episodes. It will be hard to watch an alternate Terry Clark as the one in this series was also really good.

_Vince   #7   12:50 pm Sep 22 2011

Wasn't too bad, though the Aussies spend more money on theirs. +1 about the annoying narrator. Was a bit disappointed that after all the soapie with the cops, the underworld sorted itself out and they never got to arrest Marty. Felt like their story had been a waste of time. I'm getting a bit bored with the all the nudity. All right, people have sex. BFD, they eat, sleep and take a dump, too, but that doesn't get shown. Move on, get on with the story, it's starting to feel a bit mandatory.

~GW   #8   01:21 pm Sep 22 2011

Agree with you that the main cast put on some good performances. I also thought Errol Shand did a great job of portraying Terry Clark and would of liked to have seen him get more screen time, even if the storylines would of overlapped more with 'Two Cities'.

The show did pretty well with the constraints they had. I did find the editing a bit annoying in some episodes, but that's really a minor complaint. Good watch overall.

Dandy   #9   02:15 pm Sep 22 2011

"even the vehicles seemed authentic"...?

So they should, much easier to have period vehicles than the likes of wallpaper, utensils, light switches etc. I am horrified when watching period tv/movies and see a modern car/motorcycle/plane where it shouldn't be. It is just sloppy to get this wrong...

And the hairdo's were a little modern I feel for the era, have a look through some old pics and see how atrocious the bushy sidies were on balding establishment types...

Jo   #10   03:09 pm Sep 22 2011

I agree with your comments Chris, it wasn't quite as slick as the Aussie series but well worth watching. The costumes/sets etc were fantastic.


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