The first series of Underbelly was great, and one of the best things about it was Gyton Grantley as the ruthlessly cunning yet also slightly dim-witted kingpin Carl Williams. Part of this was Grantley’s acting talent, but part of it was also the fact that very few people had seen him in anything before, and so he was able to inhabit the part of Williams in a way that, say, Hugh Jackman could not have. Put Hugh Jackman in the part and all anyone sees is Hugh Jackman pretending to be Carl Williams: put then-unknown Gyton Grantley in and we all see Carl Williams, murderous mobster, in the flesh.
The question is, can Grantley recreate that magic in the just-announced new series of Underbelly next year, given that now we all know his face? Not only do we know Gyton like an old friend, but since his memorable Underbelly turn, we’ve mostly seen him in rather cuddly, loveable roles – it’s going to be kind of weird seeing Kane from House Husbands controlling a criminal empire, although it would’ve been good to see just that in House Husbands itself.
The dilemma of Grantley reprising his role is symbolic of that facing Australia as a whole, which can be summarised as: do we all have Underbelly fatigue? How many times can the purveyors of glamorous true-crime mayhem go back to the well before we collectively cry “No more!”
Frankly, I thought we’d already reached that point. If I’m honest, I reached that point in the second series, when the gritty hardboiled action of series one gave way to Matthew Newton poncing about in a bad moustache and a hapless team of writers desperately trying to stitch two unrelated stories together and make them seem connected. By the third series, which was a whirlwind of bad acting and inexplicable nudity, the concept seemed delirious with fatigue. Yet still, they ploughed on with approximately eighty-six further stabs at exploiting Australia’s criminal history, jumping back to the 20s, having a go at Chopper, and seemingly hitting rock bottom with the agonisingly titled Underbelly: Badness. But eventually it petered out and we all thought we could move on.
But no. Hot on the heels of the revelations of Victoria Police’s wilful naughtiness regarding lawyer and informant Nicola Gobbo comes the Underbelly adaptation of the same, with the return of Carl Williams and Ella Scott Lynch, profile at an all-time high thanks to Geoffrey Rush’s defamation trial, snaring the part of Gobbo.
Have we had enough? The proof will be in the ratings, but I can’t help feeling that the Underbelly Era is one that has passed. Indeed, I don’t think it lasted nearly as long as the executives who kept commissioning new series thought. We were all quite excited, at one point, to see the grubby dealings of brutish crooks sexed up and presented by people far prettier than their real-life counterparts. But there comes a point, surely, when a discerning audience craves something more than the more sordid parts of the news with the boring bits cut out. Especially when we’ve got so much we still haven’t watched on Netflix.
I can’t see it working. The grim tale of Informer 3838 and Carl Williams will become, I fear, the tedious saga of cuddly Gyton Grantley and the feeling that there’s not as much happening as there was back in the days of Vince Colosimo. And to be honest, if it turns out that way, I’ll be quite proud of this country. We’ve grown, haven’t we, Australia? Good on us.