Dustin Clare (L.), Anna Hutchinson (C.) and Matthew Newton, 3 of the stars of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.
I was very upset when my special Directv channel, The 101, had run through all of the two seasons worth of episodes of the Showtime original series, Sleeper Cell, starring Michael Ealy. As a late arrival to Showtime’s programming, Sleeper Cell had never been on my radar, and my take on what I thought was a fairly realistic glimpse into al-Qaeda’s world was that Sleeper Cell was an excellent show that was very well acted, and the terrorists–the head honchos–were, well, terrifying. Oded Fehr, who played Farik Al Farik, a holy warrior who had taken the oath of martyrdom, was excellent in season 1 as the cell’s leader, and in season 2, he was even colder and scarier, as he ran the show from Yemen, completely protected from America’s grasp. Farik’s second in command, Ilija (Il-ya) Korjenic (Henry Lubatti), a Yugoslavian national and muslim who had been through the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, was almost as stone cold as Farik’s second in command. By episode 18 I was nearly rooting for the bad guys, they were so good. And my friend’s and I would repeat back and forth to each other the terrorists’ code, which we found especially poignant, for terrorists, or for soldiers or for anyone who needed to fight, even metaphorically, to get what they wanted. Q: where is God’s paradise? A: in the shadow of the sword.
Needless to say, when my terrorists were out of my life, I needed a new show. And The 101 stepped up again, and gave me one in my absolute favorite entertainment genre: drug fiction. Enter Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, brought to us by Australia’s Nine Network–and in fine fashion. Australian television had delivered another quality product to the American airwaves in about a year’s time, the other being Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High.
The first episode, called “Aussie Bob and Kiwi Terry”, featured a simple but effective plot. A New Zealender, Kiwi Terry (Matthew Newton) comes to the small town of Griffith in New South Wales, where some of the heaviest mobsters lived, and the drug distributors. New South Wales was known as Australia’s cannabis capital, and the main man was Aussie Bob Trimbole (Roy Billing, The Chronicles of Narnia) who Terry Clark approaches to see if he would be interested in helping him move China White Heroin (named by the way by our friend Dr. Shulgin, who figured out for the D.E.A. why it was so powerful and where it came from by analyzing its chemical structure), the strongest and most pure heroin in the world. Bob is interested, but immediately wants to discuss a partnership, which Aussie Terry dismisses out of hand, a conversation that took place at a race track owned by the dapper white haired George Freeman (Peter O’Brien). A fitting locale, since Bob is interested because he knows good heroin is a huge money maker, and he loves to bet the ponies, which places a drain on his finances.
When Clark, nicknamed “Mr. Asia” for his ability to get his hands on China White–he had flooded his home country, New Zealand, with the stuff before fleeing to Australia–rebuffs Trimbole’s idea, Aussie Bob gets on the phone to his friend George Freeman, and tells him that it upsets him when some “dipshit from New Zealand” takes George’s name in vain, as he places a bet on a horse. Freeman took the call while on his yacht with a beautiful topless woman, less than half his age. But when George gets back to dry land he invites Clark to a meeting in which he and his henchmen beat the living daylights out of Mr. Asia, causing me to recall Ray Liotta’s famous line in Goodfellas: “the way I see it, everybody takes a beating sometime.”
Clark returns to Trimbole, a bit more humble, and with a better idea of how the underground works in New South Wales, and brings him a peace offering–an expensive bottle of wine. They “rip the cork” on the bottle and drink it down all polite like, and then they have a walk through Bob’s stables. At one point on their walk, Bob pulls a gun on Terry and tells him to get down on his knees and to put his hands on his head. Terry complies, and then Bob tells him to pick up the garbage bag to his left, which we immediately think is someone’s carved up remains. Surprise. It’s a garbage bag stuffed with weed. Bob tells him it’s a gift, but to “never, ever fuck him.” And then he demands a sample of the white, which Terry doesn’t just yet have.
A side plot is that of an aspiring politician in Griffith, Donald Mackay (Andrew McFarlane), running on the anti-drug ticket, who enrages Aussie Bob by calling him out publicly at a political rally. Kiwi Terry happens to arrive at that rally with Bob’s heroin sample (see below), and hears Mackay label Bob Trimbole as the biggest drug dealer in New South Wales. Terry confronts Bob in private over Mackay, and tells him to handle Mackay. The last thing they needed was an anti-drug crusader up Bob’s ass while they jumped from marijuana to heroin. Terry had enough to worry about coming through customs a few times a month from Singapore on a fake passport with pounds of heroin taped up under his suit. Bob tries to entice Mackay with a prostitute and then catch him in the act to blackmail him, but Mackay is too smart for that, so he’s gotta go. And he needs an out of town hit man to do the job who can not be Italian, because just about the only thing that a totally corrupt police force would care about was a mob hit on a politician.
Bob then sends Frank Tizzoni (Tony Poli), a close associate in the marijuana trade to Melbourne to recruit a shooter for Mackay, who in the end of episode 1, puts a bullet in Mackay’s head, which paves the way for a few years of crazy money making that fly under the radar.
Things are good for Terry but become even better, when he recruits a new lover, Alison Dine (Anna Hutchinson), to be his mule to and from Singapore, and now, he even gets the nod of approval at the social club for heavy hitters from George Freeman, who delivered to him express that vicious beating in episode 1.
All is well in New South Wales indeed, but when Frank Tizzoni overhears Bob on the phone to “the family” and doesn’t hear him mention tribute from the China White trade, he tells Bob that if the family finds out, they would feed him to the pigs. I was so taken by this series that when my tivo went out on episode 3 during a storm, I went to www.surfthechannel.com and ended up watching the whole season over 2 or 3 days.
By the way, Bob’s reply to Tizzoni, you ask?
“Some of me best friends are pigs.”
After The Wire and Breaking Bad, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities might be my favorite show done in the genre. Don’t let me spoil any more of it for you.