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SYFY WIRE Watchmen

The Australian series Cleverman was a proto-Watchmen

By Noah Berlatsky

HBO's Watchmen television series is being praised for its forthright engagement with America's history of racist violence. The show opens with a recreation of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which the KKK led the white people of Tulsa in the beating and murder of their black neighbors. Now, that's notable for two reasons. While superhero narratives sometimes tackle injustice, they usually present costumed heroes fighting crime or defending the earth from alien invaders — Black Panther didn't show its hero directly battling racist white people. The enemy in Watchmen, though, is bigotry and white supremacists. It feels like a groundbreaking step for the genre.

Watchmen is unusual and riveting. But it's not the first superhero narrative to engage so frankly with the history of racism. The wonderful Australian television series Cleverman was largely ignored when it ran in 2016-2017. But its two seasons and 12 episodes remain available through streaming, and given Watchmen's success, it's worth revisiting.

Cleverman is set in a near-future Australia, in which a new Aboriginal group, the Hairypeople, has recently come out of seclusion. The Hairypeople are covered in fur and are stronger and faster than humans, and they live longer, to boot. The Australian government hates and fears them, and has segregated them in a slum called the Zone with other indigenous people. If Hairypeople travel outside the Zone, they are hunted down using sophisticated surveillance tech and imprisoned or killed.

Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) is chosen by his uncle as a Cleverman, with powers of healing and foresight, to try to prevent the wealthy white man Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen) from using science to appropriate the Hairypeople's powers for himself. Koen's brother Waruu (Rob Collins) at first is a leader in the Zone. But out of bitterness at not being chosen as Cleverman, he eventually allies himself with Slade.

Watchmen is based on a famous comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and much of the coverage of the show is frequently focused on easter eggs, while the series rejiggers and retcons to connect the comic to the show's themes of antiracism. Cleverman, in contrast, is inspired mostly by Australian aboriginal legends. Ryan Griffen, the series' creator, is aboriginal himself, and he talked to numerous elders to gather stories that he could work into the series.

In part because of Griffens' care, Cleverman is a more direct, and substantially more painful, exploration of racism than is the norm in genre fiction, or in Hollywood. The Hairypeople have superpowers, but they aren't using those powers to protect humans from other outcasts, as in standard X-Men storylines. Nor does the series imagine a role reversal in which black people are cops, and the state is antiracist, as in Watchmen.

Instead, Cleverman is riveting because it doesn't try to be that clever. Its science fiction dystopia functions almost exactly like the dystopia we live in; indigenous people and black people are segregated, policed, and imprisoned, with no recourse. They are fetishized, sexually abused, and exploited. Their children are taken from them. They're forcibly assimilated; Slade is working on a scientific process that can turn Hairypeople into "humans." This supposedly protects them from prejudice, though, of course, ex-Hairypeople are still hated, and no longer have the strength to defend themselves.

The cruelty and prejudice in Cleverman are as small and dingy as in life. The series looks more like an older television genre series than the current, slicker age of quality television. The Zone is a ramshackle amalgamation of fences and lots; the suffering there is banal and everyday, rather than gothic. The Hairypeople themselves were designed by Jacob Nash of the Aboriginal Bangarra Dance Theater and realized by the Weta workshop with a gracefully matter-of-fact solidity. At first glance, they're just like humans. But the extra hair is tactile, magical, disorienting — just alien enough to believably provoke fear, hate, or desire.

The acting is also mostly restrained. There aren't many big names in the cast, and the writing doesn't call for many scene-chewing moments. But that only heightens the impact of smaller choices. Waruu's growing jealousy and bitterness seep through his every scene; his protracted, sickening betrayal of himself is one of the most convincing depictions of corruption I've seen on television. Rarriwuy Hick's portrayal of Latani, a Hairy teen whose younger sister is killed, is also a marvel of alternating vulnerability and rage, hope, and thwarted trust. She'll break your heart.

It's not hard to see why Cleverman didn't catch on in the U.S. Even if the parallels with American racism and xenophobia are very clear, the show is still embedded in its Australian context. And it's unrelentingly bleak. Koen is not the kind of superhero who swoops in and makes everything better. When you're fighting an entire society bent on hate and cruelty, any victory is going to be provisional. Cleverman is too conscious of history, and of pain, to be much use as an empowerment fantasy. But there isn't another superhero narrative onscreen crafted with as much honesty, or with as much love.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.