Like just about everybody else who has seen it, (and there are plenty in Victoria), I enjoyed Underbelly. The character of Roberta Williams stole the show, of course. There's nothing more charming than a strong, female character who utters such niceties as 'Suck my toe-jam!'. Many of the backdrops would be familiar to Melbournians, as would many of the characters and events which, among certain crowds, and in certain neighbourhoods, became the stuff of minor myth.
I has some minor quibbles - some of the characters were brilliantly cast, but occasionally I detected a misfire, particularly as regards the police. The lack of 'gentrification' of some of the criminal characters was good to see. Predictably, almost every murder was preceded by scenes of the soon-to-be-victim farewelling loved ones. The Victorian police were portrayed rather fawningly, with scant mention of the entrenched police corruption that allowed the underworld to function in the first place. Yes, there was a single, moustache-wearing villainous cop, but he was promptly caught in order to showcase the virtue of the others. In fairness, I can think of few precedents in Australian drama where police have been portrayed realistically.
Whilst the local detail is no doubt interesting to Victorians, the show has found popularity Australia-wide. This is not entirely surprising, given the success of the gangster genre. Like the most successful gangster flicks, Underbelly combined depictions of the criminal underworld with psychological explorations (extremely brief, in this case, but to be expected) and family scenes. This is a tried-and -true formula in this genre: consider the fact that The Godfather begins with a wedding, The Godfather II begins with a first communion, and Goodfellas focuses at length on the downward spiral of Liotta and Bracco's marriage.
There is thus a sense of universality depicted, even among these extreme characters. Perhaps, in the po-mo era, the brutal violence of the gangster genre is the closest thing we have to tragedy.
Two powerful (and sometimes, controversial) means of analysing some of these universalities in drama and literature come in the form of what can be broadly termed psychoanalytic and Marxist criticism.
Psychoanalytic themes are in abundance in Underbelly. We see characters with ever-shifting allegiances and identifications, we see primal fathers and Oedipal sons, the swapping of women, and the desperate, narcissistic need to confirm to a violent ideal ego, spurred on by an equally violent superego. Nonetheless, in this post, I'll restrict my comments to a few of the political themes of Underbelly.
All of the characters form part of what Marx termed the Lumpenproletariat, a class that is both excluded, and reactionary. The essence of Melbourne's infamous gangland wars, as depicted here, revolves around a dispute between two factions within the criminal wing of this class. One is an impoverished but 'up-and-coming' class, led by the character of Carl Williams, and ably revealed in the crass, vengeful consumerism of his Lady Macbeth, Roberta. The other faction consists of wealthy 'establishment' criminal criminals, the irony being that these characters were themselves once the impoverished sons of (mostly) Italian and Irish immigrants, with origins in the notorious Painters and Dockers Union. The complacency of this latter group, who live in gentrified neighbourhoods, drive expensive cars, and send their children to private schools, eventually explodes into violence when their supremacy is challenged by the up-and-comers.
In the actions of Williams and his crew, we see in microcosm what we have witnessed on the world stage for many years. The twin pillars of capitalism and imperialism are seen in Underbelly in miniature, and Williams and his proxies kill to maintain strategic supremacy, their control of trade, and, rather like the US, their 'prestige'.
Toward the end of the series, we see Williams' disingenuous attempts to exonerate his role in the gangland wars. When we see him tell a media scrum that he an innocent, a 'business man', merely defending the interests of his family, we hear an echo of Bush's justifications for the ongoing war on terror, and for pre-emptive strikes. When Williams callously dismisses the trauma of the children witnessing a murder he has commissioned against their fathers ('They'll get over it'), we are reminded of Rumsfeld's famous bon mot regarding Iraq ('Stuff happens').
After all, all capitalism is, at bottom, 'gangster capitalism'. A shadow market ruled by underworld figures is not an anomaly within a consumer capitalist society, but its logical extension. A worker, a sole individual, can never 'take on' an industry or state in the manner in which these entities can do to the former. And, in the last resort, these entities have force at their disposal, in order to prosecute laws and industrial edicts. (Flouting unfair laws has, however, brought at least one recent success). We need only see how entrenched, and how easily accommodated gangsterism is in some societies (such as Southern Italy, for one) to see how coextensive are the two worlds of legitimate and illegitimate business.
When we see this imperialism played out in dramas on the screen, we recognise it as crime. When we see it unfold on the daily news, we dignify it with the name of 'war', or, even more euphemistically, as 'peace-keeping' or 'nation-building'. It is as if relieving a long-suffering gangster's moll of her husband, by way of a few bullet wounds is a 'humanitarian liberation'. After all, our leaders are just good businessmen, protecting the interests of their (elite) families.