December 15, 2021

Television

Raising the stakes: ‘Firebite’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Rob Collins as Tyson in ‘Firebite’. Image supplied

Rob Collins as Tyson in Firebite. Image supplied

Warwick Thornton’s magnificently pulpy Indigenous vampire-hunter drama leads the pack of December streaming highlights

“How do you kill ’em?” “Boomerang to the heart.” In AMC+’s Firebite, the vampire slayers are steeped in Aboriginal tradition and their undead foes are the definitive result of colonisation’s cruelty. A genre drama set in the Australian outback and financed by an American streaming service, the series draws on the past for its mythology and looks to the future with its international financing. “The monsters are real,” says Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), but the teenager’s classmates laugh with derision when her Australia Day report details the secret cargo of the First Fleet: 11 vampires sent by the British to Australia to clear the Indigenous population like an unfettered disease. “Our blackfella blood is like crack to them,” notes Shanika’s guardian, Tyson (Rob Collins), and in the outback town of Opal City, with its pockmarked landscape and underground tunnels, the pair protect the Aboriginal community with a hardy form of pest control.

Firebite was created by filmmakers Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country) and Brendan Fletcher (Mad Bastards). It has the B-movie heart of The Walking Dead or Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but the pulpy conventions have some welcome distinguishing traits: bloody fight scenes worthy of a drive-in double bill, a sardonic sense of humour and an unadorned Aboriginal perspective. Tyson’s cocksure confidence – he’s a “dickhead” not an “arsehole”, the defiant Shanika helpfully tells her school principal – wanes when a powerful vampire king, Josiah (Callan Mulvey), one of the original First Fleet spectres, arrives to organise the tunnel-dwelling vampire colony, closely followed by an Aboriginal Blood Hunter, Jalingbirri (Kelton Pell), who has spent his life exterminating the ultimate manifestation of colonisation. The story strands pick up an enjoyable momentum in the early episodes, which Thornton directed.

AMC+ is a streaming service grown out of the American cable channel that was home to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. (It’s available here as an additional bundle through Apple TV or Amazon Prime, costing $8.99 a month.) The decision to finance Firebite for an international audience is a bold commission. But with its subversive metaphors and overdriven engine whines worthy of Mad Max, the series is a stinging piece of entertainment. Thornton, who also served as director of photography, has such a strong eye that the rough-and-ready aesthetic often has a striking visual appeal – the stalking after midnight comes with evocative nocturnal hues, for example. Australian cinema has long struggled with the question of how to integrate genre works into local storytelling, but Firebite is an answer that also makes use of streaming services’ hunger for original content. The playing field has now shifted, and the profile of Aboriginal storytelling can continue to grow.

Landscapers (Stan) is very firmly in the “truth is stranger than fiction” strand of true-crime drama. The limited series’ subjects are the apparently unassuming English couple Susan and Christopher Edwards (Olivia Colman and David Thewlis), who in 2014 were convicted of murdering Susan’s parents in 1998 and burying the bodies in the rear garden of the victims’ Nottinghamshire home. The show is directed by Will Sharpe, whose 2016 series Flowers (which also starred Colman), is one of the most remarkable black comedies of the last decade. Both shows view English proclivity and manners as the wellspring of unexpected and even unhinged behaviour, so that eccentricity translates to tragedy. As a whydunnit – the who is made clear from the opening scene – Landscapers is a discombobulated procedural: everything from the investigating police to the dynamic between Susan and Christopher is off-kilter. But with Colman and Thewlis finely matched at its centre, it delivers fascinating revelations.

In brief: Somewhere, Kim Cattrall is laughing. The one key cast member of Sex and the City to be excluded from the HBO rom-com’s new iteration, And Just Like That (Binge), Cattrall avoided a dire update that second-guessed itself into awkward nods to today’s social structures and a repudiation of the show’s successful past. First airing on 2014 on an obscure American cable channel, the rediscovered two seasons of Manhattan (Stan) are a thorough fictional reimagining of the scientists racing to build the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1943; think Mad Men with a bigger bang theory. Beloved space operas have a way of ending badly – Battlestar Galactica devotees know this – but the sixth and final season of The Expanse (Amazon) is wrapping up this 24th-century tale of solar system conflict with the same themes that resonated throughout: humanity’s vulnerability in the face of inequality, our rush to division and the unavoidable cost of trying to make a genuine difference.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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