When it comes to the second series of Underbelly, one question eclipses all others; is it better than the first?
This series chronicles the booming drug trade of the 70's and 80's through the meeting and partnership between drug kings Aussie Bob Trimbole and Kiwi Terry Clark. The series also covers the affairs of crime boss and glitterati George Freeman, Terry Clark's attractive girlfriend Allison, the hyped up hitman Chris Flannery and the mini war between the Chuck and Kane gangs that had upsetting results. On the other side of the law, there are the few honourable cops around in Australia at this time who fight to acheive justice against the demoralized NSW police and very elusive criminals. Amidst all of the gratuitous sex, drugs, violence and swearing; the solid acting, writing and directing is really what made this series great.
Good performances are prevelent in this show; special mention goes to Matthew Newton (bad accent aside he really did nail the charming yet unstable Terry), Dustin Clare (i've never seen recklessness and hot - headedness portrayed as convincingly as Clare does as Chris which makes him the Australian version of Tommy DeVito from Goodfeallas) and Peter O'Brien with his understated George Freeman being great. However there are two actors who simply must be singled out; the first is Roy Billing as Bob, despite being cuddly and sassy on the outside, inside there is a ruthless and dangerous criminal who is stopped only by his ailing health, Billing flawlessly portrays all this and never misses a beat. If only one actor on the show wins an award, it will be him. The second is Damien De Montemas; at first audiences thought he was going to coast on a lazy portrayal of a typical smug lawyer but his powerhouse performance as Brian Alexander's world begins to come crashing down is excellent and he'll be a confident bet to receive some awards credit. The women on this show are either depicted as powerless damsels in distress or sultry pieces of meat that are constantly ripping their clothes off but Asher Keddie who stars as the caring and hard-working Detective Cruickshank offers a brilliant and realistic performance that will ensure that sexism is one of the only criticisms that will not be aimed at the show. This series adopts a different style to the first one; for one thing the glossy and bustling feel and appearence is replaced with a slower and more fuzzier tone consistent with most 70's shows. The second series is not afraid to filter what we see; the violence is grittier, the sex scenes don't just depict the female form and drugs are portrayed in a much less glamourous way.
The direction of this show captures the rapidly changing mood very effectively but too often you see them take close-ups on random things like hands, feet and eyes for no real "arty" purpose except weird for the sake of weird. The first series was riddled with the cheesy inevitability that the good guys will always beat the bad guys but this is totally absent here; corruptuon is widespread and very intense with the good cops being vastly outnumbered by the bad ones who are joined with a legion of other crooked personnal in various institutions. We are never sure if justice will ultimately be served until the very last scene of the last episode; the battle ends with the series but the war only just begins. All of this brings us back to the opening question; is this series better than the first one? The answer is yes. While it contains all of the masterful elements of the first series it succeeds in painting a more realistic picture and really showing the ins and outs of the gangland war. Whether or not it's accepted as a historical piece, it will always be remembered as a masterpiece.