Underbelly: It's a Jungle Out There
By Bert Ehrmann
February 4, 2010
I've been a big fan of the Australian crime series Underbelly for the last several years now. Unfortunately for most Americans, though, Underbelly has never officially aired anywhere in the US which means that no matter how many people I extolled the virtues of the series to didn't really matter since most couldn't easily see the show. Luckily, though, Underbelly just began airing here in the US on the DirecTV channel The 101.
I'm not quite sure how I first discovered Underbelly. I think I had heard rumblings online in late 2007 about this Australian series that was supposed to give The Sopranos a run for its money. But since I'd never really seen a foreign drama that was up to the standard of American ones I didn't give those rumblings much thought. That was until I began seeing promos for the Underbelly online. I was sold almost immediately but still had to wonder; could the Australians do it? Could they beat us at our own game at the modern TV crime drama? After watching the first episode I was sold. Simply put, Underbelly is one of the great TV dramas of our time. It's well written and acted and since the series is based on true events it's all the more harrowing to realize that real people did the terrible things that were depicted on Underbelly and, even worse, real people suffered.
The first season of Underbelly, which premiered back in 2008 in Australia, focused on criminal kingpin Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley) during an war between several organized crime clans in Australia in the 1990s. Williams starts off the series as a low level driver for a crime family but when he figures out how to manufacture the drug Ecstasy more cheaply than everyone else he slowly amasses a fortune and all the power that comes with it. And Williams quickly realizes that the only thing better than having some power is having A LOT of power and the only way to maintain all this power is through manipulation, intimidation and murder. Lots and lots of murder.
The second season of Underbelly, known as Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, premiered in 2009. This time, the series left the '90s and would instead focus on the late 1970s to the early to mid-1980s. Here, drug-runner and all around sleazeball Terry Clark (Matthew Newton) would transform the illegal drug industry in Australia when, using his connections in Asia, Clark figured out a way to import massive amounts of heroin into the country at a time when even a pound or two of the stuff was worth its weight in gold. It didn't help matters that the local cops are living the high life off of bribes and payouts from local marijuana growers and are more than willing to ignore the problems Clark and his heroin brings as long as they're getting a cut of the profits. And Clark, master manipulator who possesses an almost supernatural ability to woo almost any woman into doing anything for him, is more than happy to pay whatever it takes as long as he's allowed to murder anyone who gets in his way.
The basic premise of Underbelly is that criminals like Carl Williams or Terry Clark will do whatever it takes to stay on top and maintain their lifestyle and that this process of "staying on top" is destructive by its very nature. Both Williams and Clark must have realized that at best they'd end up in prison or at worst dead if they continued their lifestyles, yet both did right up until the end. At one point in the second series, Clark's girlfriend asks him when will they have enough money to leave the life behind and retire? To which Clark hints there there's never enough.
Currently, Underbelly airs on the DirecTV The 101 channel Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (EST). DirecTV has chosen to broadcast the seasons of Underbelly out of the order they aired but in the order that the events in the series took place in. So, the 1970s/80s Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities is currently airing which will be followed by the original Underbelly sometime this spring.