21 August 2015 | tomsview
In good company
For a long while, I didn't think Australian television would ever produce anything comparable to those British movie-length detective series such as "Morse", "Wallander", "Lewis", "George Gently" and "Vera". Not many US television series equal them either although Tom Selleck's "Jesse Stone" goes pretty close.
Over the years, Australian television produced many superficial crime series. Usually one-hour long, they typically had bland, one-dimensional characters with an emotional level about as deep as the makeup.
And that is the reason, first time around, I actually missed the Australian-made series that broke the mould and finally delivered something that stands comparison with the best - "BlackJack" starring Colin Friels.
There are only seven episodes: a pilot and two short series, but the quality shines through.
Friels' character, Jack Kempson, possesses that one essential quality that makes "Wallander", "Vera", "Morse", "Jesse Stone" and a handful of others stand out from the crowd - empathy. It's not even necessarily brilliant plots; they may all be tough cops, but understanding is at the core of their characters; they understand human frailty - they are world-weary, but also worldly.
Writers Sean Micallef and Gary McCaffrie caught the tone perfectly. Friels' Jack Kempston is a cop on the outer after informing on corrupt colleagues. He is virtually buried in a unit entering old files on computer, and he is no computer geek. It's a clever device; the series is built around the fact that the files give Kempson the opportunity to re-investigate old cases. Kempson is also a single dad, and life has thrown up challenges; his spirited daughter is handicapped, and there are unresolved family issues.
A partner is the other important ingredient in the best police dramas - Morse had Lewis, then Lewis had Hathaway. Even George Gently had the mercurial John Bacchus. "BlackJack" settles in after the moody pilot episode with its echoes of the Graeme Thorne kidnapping case, and Kempson teams up with Marta Dusseldorp's Sam Lawson. They spark off each other, but there is also mutual respect.
Another important ingredient is a feeling for place. Where the best British dramas are often set in the North of England (Massachusetts for "Jesse Stone" and Sweden for "Wallander"), "BlackJack" is set in Sydney. The city is used well with atmospheric night scenes and locations in older suburbs.
Much of the series' appeal is down to Friels. We get a handle on Jack Kempson in the first episode - by the last one we know him well. He's not easily fazed; when he thinks he is right about something, he pursues it tenaciously. Friels also has a light touch; the perfect balance to the intensity of the drama.
Sean Micallef is a unique talent - comedian, actor, and writer. To have come up with this series, which almost seems like a sideline in his CV, is pretty impressive.
"BlackJack" is gone, but another Australian series promises to be nearly as good: "Jack Irish" starring Guy Pearce. With just three episodes so far, only time will tell.