With Crimes of Passion having proved that the seemingly bottomless well of Nordic Noir might finally be running on empty for the time being at least, it’s good to see BBC4 looking further afield to fill their quota of Saturday night high-brow crime and thriller content. We’ve already had French, Italian and Belgian productions in the channel’s Saturday evening schedule, but this time the channel has gone even further afield for some quality drama fare. In fact the latest find is from as far away as possible from the usual Scandinavian and European sources – that is to say, completely the other side of the planet.
The Code is a brand new production from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and is a stylish, densely-plotted modern political conspiracy thriller that manages to walk the very fine line of combining both a clear, intelligible high-level plot and a completely impenetrable underbelly of lies, deception and obfuscation, with the former giving us enough to hang on to even as we get completely lost in the latter.
Written and created by Shelley Birse, the basic premise is that internet journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) is sent a video which upon investigation shows serious wrongdoing by mysterious energy company Physanto at their base deep in the outback, making it sound like a bit like an updating of 1980s BBC classic Edge of Darkness. The more he looks into the video, the more Ned comes under attack from powerful shadowy figures deep within the heart of the Australian government in Canberra who are quick to use harsh, totalitarian anti-terrorism tools at the behest of their corporate associates which includes the abduction off the street of Ned’s brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman). Beyond this central through-line it’s hard to tell who is working with whom or why, what they’re up to and how certain people end up dead, and I suspect that even at the end of the full six episodes I won’t be much the wiser. Instead of worrying about it, I soon decided to lie back and just hold on for the ride and as a result I find myself knowing exactly what’s going on scene-to-scene while simultaneously not having a clue about a lot of the underlying machinations.
Considering that Jesse is that staple figure found only in movies and TV – the high functioning autistic genius computer hacker – it’s rather a surprise that instead of rolling my eyes at the cliché I actually found this character to be the most compelling stand-out part of the show. That’s thanks to a script which has evidently researched deeply into the relevant medical conditions and which does a good job in representing it accurately, sensitively and with subtle layering rather than just sticking with the usual one-note stereotypes. It’s also brilliantly played by Zukerman, who is a disturbing dead ringer for a Donnie Darko-era Jake Gyllenhaal.
It’s the exasperated yet loving relationship with his brother that quickly raises Ned in our estimations too, and there’s also good support from Chelsie Preston Crayford as government PR expert Sophie Walsh who goes from icily efficient to developing a dangerous conscience about what she’s got herself unwittingly involved in; and Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless as Alex Wisham, a schoolteacher in the outback safeguarding the interests of Clarence (Aaron McGrath), one her young students who has managed to land himself at the heart of the deadly conspiracy.
There are plenty of other characters as well, including Coyote Ugly’s Adam Garcia as Ned’s boss Perry and Top of the Lake’s David Wenham as a political advisor to the Prime Minister, but to be honest most of these are not very well developed – at least not by the end of the second of six episodes. They’re generally rather cardboard cut-out bad guys scheming in the corridors of power and saying obliquely threatening things when required, although Dan Wyllie quickly marks himself out as something a little more nuanced as ruthless Australian Federal Police investigator Lyndon Joyce.
The spread of interconnected plots between the press, police, politicians and hackers, and between city people and outback folk, put me in mind of the structure behind the original series of Forbrydelsen although The Code is undoubtedly much faster-moving than the 2007 Danish series, and more focussed on the thriller aspect than on atmosphere, investigation or whodunnit. Even so, there’s something about the way that the end of each episode does a summary of the plot lines currently in play by quick editing and intercutting between each before a sudden and effective cliffhanger ending that reminded me of the way Forbrydelsen used to wrap up each episode, and as a consequence I’m pretty sure that the people behind The Code know their Danish TV really rather quite well.
That said, this is a very modern show with a very different sensibility, a more familiar and mainstream one to us than Nordic Noir was when we first got to experience it. One of the slight downsides about sourcing a new series from Australia is that those of us in Britain are already very familiar with the country, its archetypes and even its routine drama output, and while this is markedly different fare from the usual diet of Neighbours and Home and Away it’s still close enough to the US and UK culturally to have been heavily influenced in turn by those northern hemisphere countries’ movies and TV shows. As a result this looks very in line with the sort of high-quality production that you’d get from an American or British network, which feels oddly a little disappointing for something being shown in the BBC4 9pm slot where we’re used to sampling something a little more unusual, foreign and challenging to our usual palettes.
But that’s not to say that The Code isn’t well made, because it it certainly is, although Shawn Seet’s direction lays on the cutting edge style just a little too thickly for my taste with extreme close-ups, shaky cameras, aggressive colour grading, exceptionally narrow-focus and tilt-shifting. It even picks up and develops Sherlock’s gimmicky presentation of text messages and computer screen information (see also Non-Stop) for good measure. However, much as I might personally like the styling toned down just a little, there’s no question that it’s nonetheless extremely polished and well done. In particular, the location work both in Canberra’s urban environment and in the compellingly alien outback countryside is beautifully and imaginatively presented.
Overall it paints the current standard of Australian TV production in an extremely good light, and leaves me wishing that we got to see much more of the country’s drama output outside of the usual daytime teen soaps. My only slight regret is that The Code feels slightly too mainstream for the BBC4 slot and that it deserves a proper primetime position on one of the main channels where it would find a more fitting audience than it will here, tucked safely out of the way in the ‘foreign/subtitled arts and drama’ slot.
The Code continues on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm, and earlier episodes are available to watch on BBC iPlayer. The first series will be released on DVD in the UK on November 3, 2014.