‘Cleverman’ Series Premiere Review: Making “First Contact”

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Well, THAT happened. On the premiere of the new Sundance series, “Cleverman,” a lot of things happened and not a lot of it made sense, but I can only assume that the show knows what it’s doing and where it’s headed, as explaining the plot is going to take some doing.

Hell, if it weren’t for IMDb, I don’t know if I’d even know most of these characters’ names. When it comes as a relief when someone actually introduces themselves by name, I’m not sure what that says about a show. But if ever there were a show where captions might come in handy, it’s this one, between those names and those accents. (Alas, I didn’t have that option.)

Anyway, here’s the best I can do: a “coyote”-type (as in someone who smuggles illegals across the border, not the animal of the same name, obvi) sneaks a family into an apartment complex for cash, only to turn them in to authorities once he gets back to his place, making bank on both the family themselves and the reward money for turning in illegals in the process.

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Meanwhile, his more civic-minded older brother seeks to actually help said illegals instead of harm them, and doesn’t take kindly to his little bro doing what he does. As a warning, he sets his thug upon his brother to never do this sort of thing again, who literally rips off his middle finger when he shoots his brother a bird.

Astonishingly, the finger almost instantly heals itself, with the finger reattaching itself and leaving no sign it ever happened. To test out his theory of what this means, he cuts himself intentionally, and sure enough, the wound heals itself. Empowered by this development, he catches up to his brother at their uncle’s funeral to show him proof of this newfound power, much to his shock.

As far as I could tell, this resulted from said uncle intentionally summoning a creature to attack and kill him, which crashes down from the sky in flames, lands in the water, swims rapidly over to the man and leaps out at him, burrowing into his stomach and disemboweling him to death. We see a cloudy smoke in his eyes and that’s all she wrote for said uncle.

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If I have it correctly, whatever was going on here was the uncle’s way of passing down the titular “cleverman” status to his nephew, which is sort of like the leader of their tribe. But why would the uncle choose the younger boy, who is proven to be kind of terrible, over his much more socially-conscious older brother, who is not only trying to keep their traditions alive, but actively trying to help his people? Your guess is as good as mine.

There’s also some set-up in regards as to how things are done in this version of society, with everyone divided into two camps: the humans and the sub-humans. The humans can come and go as they please, while the sub-humans are relegated to the “Green Zone,” with imprisonment the penalty if they are caught so much as walking elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the “Green Zone” is rife with crime and destruction, and a pretty unpleasant place to live all around. Hence one family’s willingness to work with the “coyote” to get out. Alas, it costs them, as not only are they turned in, but during their capture, the eldest son attacks their would-be captors and injures several before one takes a shot at him and accidentally kills his youngest sister instead.

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Also on the scene is a reporter, Belinda (Leeanna Walsman), who was tipped off to be there for the capture and film it by media magnate Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen, “Game of Thrones”), who broadcasts it on TV, upsetting politician Geoff Matthews (Andrew McFarlane). Matthews is easily placated by a promised TV interview on a popular show by Slade, however.

Slade is married to Charlotte Cleary (Frances O’Conner, “A.I.”), a doctor/humanitarian, who probably doesn’t know the kind of stuff her husband is up to, as she is shown to be actively helping out the so-called “hairies,” aka the aforementioned sub-humans, volunteering her services to them in the “Green Zone.”

Seemingly sweet on her is the older brother I mentioned, Waruu (Rob Collins), who himself leads a relief effort to help out the “hairies,” trying to relocate them to safer parts of town as he can, which doesn’t always go over well with the locals, especially those of the human variety. On a slightly more dubious note, he also stages fights so that humans and sub-humans can “work out” their differences in the ring.

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Younger bro Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard, “The Sapphires”) runs a bar, with his best friend Blair (Ryan Corr, “Wolf Creek 2”) backing him up in both that endeavor and his side-“coyote” duties, though less enthusiastically so in the case of the latter. Blair dates redhead cutie Ash (Stef Dawson, “The Hunger Games” series), but it’s clear that she’s attracted to Koen as well, which should cause even more problems later on.

I think that about covers all the main characters thus far, save the late Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles, “Pan”), who will likely crop up in flashbacks, one assumes, or perhaps as a ghost. Hard to say, but there’s clearly some supernatural shenanigans going on here, so you never know, maybe he’s less dead than we think. That one girl on the slab certainly seemed to be active towards the end there, and she was dead, too, so who knows?

So, yeah, that’s about the best I can do for now, as it was hard to make tails of a lot of this one way or another. Not saying it was necessarily bad, just a bit confusing at times, which I assume was intentional, as the creators no doubt want people to keep watching long enough to figure it out.

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So good, so far, as the show has already been renewed for another season, always a good sign of confidence for a new show. Granted, it’s not as if Sundance is bursting at the seams with shows on the whole, but still, not too shabby, “Cleverman.”

Not hurting matters is that there’s only six episodes in the first season, so it’s not a huge commitment for viewers with short attention spans. The show has a gritty, dingy look that’s not entirely appealing, but enough intriguing mythos to make up for it and keep one watching for that alone.

The so-called “hairies” have a unique look that is pitched somewhere between the “primordial man” of “Altered States” and the Geico Cavemen, which I think I mean as a compliment. It’s easy enough to sympathize with them, as they are obviously posited as sort of the 99% to the 1% that are the humans, as it were, or the minorities struggling against the majority rule.

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Factor in the supernatural underpinnings and this could be interesting, especially once it starts making more sense, which hopefully, it will. If not, well, it’s at the very least, a fairly interesting premise and just compelling enough to keep one watching, especially with the limited pickings during the summer months, where reality TV, game shows, and various competitive shows reign supreme.

What did you think of the show? Were you impressed? Will you continue to watch “Cleverman” for its six episode run? Were you surprised it was renewed so soon? What did you think of the cast? How about the overall plot? Did you make more sense of it than I did? Sound off down below and I’ll check back in at the end of the first season’s run!