Monday, April 12, 2010

Making Heroes Out Of Hoodlums

The new series of Underbelly has proven to be an instant success with a national audience of more than 2.2 million people tuned in to watch the story of crime and police corruption in Kings Cross in the late eighties and nineties. Many of the events that will be depicted in the coming weeks are fresh in our memories because it’s not so long since they were front page news. No doubt, the notion that this is a true story only adds to the appeal, with many of us fascinated by stories of a world which is different from our mundane existence as wage slaves and mortgage holders.

Some have been critical of earlier installments of the Underbelly series, and other similar programs, because they glamourise criminal activity and the real life villains who in the end are usually dangerous and obnoxious people. Police in particular have condemned the way in which a criminal life can be made to seem alluring and attractive by the way it is portrayed on television. It has made heroes out of hoodlums and celebrities out of people who would literally knock off your grandmother if it suited them.

Of course, the story told by Underbelly is great drama, and Underbelly tells it well. But the fact is that Underbelly is not a documentary. It is a dramatic work which happens to be based on real events and real people, but which relies on artistic license to make a good story great. People who have an intimate knowledge of the facts behind the fiction, including investigative journalist Chris Masters and former detective Roger Rogerson, have offered a different account of the events depicted so far in the new series.

For example, Chris Masters reports that police doubt that John Ibrahim ever met George Freeman, and that Lennie McPherson had long since retired to the Gold Coast by the time Ibrahim arrived in the Cross. Roger Rogerson says that as far has he knows the Federal Police officer played by Sigrid Thornton never existed at all, and the drug deal sting which saw her ripped off by the State police was in his words “complete fabrication”. Of course, it was great to see Sigrid back on the screen and looking incredibly hot, and that really is the point. Underbelly is a piece of entertainment, not an essay in recent history.

In that respect, it’s hard to see how Underbelly does any more to glamourise crime than any other television show or movie. Whether it’s Miami Vice or CSI or even The Sopranos, the bad guys have always driven the fancy cars, had the fancy girlfriends, and flashed plenty of cash. But they have also always met with justice of one kind or another, whether real or poetic. The bad guys never win in the end, and even the ones who seem to get away with it usually pay the price one way or another. It’s the curse of Michael Corleone, condemned to destroy the people he loves.

These are morality tales, and far from making crime seem glamorous to sensible people, actually show the consequences of making such choices. Any one who is inspired to take up a life of crime and violence after watching them is more than likely already that way inclined, and not too bright either. So, if you enjoy watching Underbelly, or other crime shows, you can relax and indulge your guilty pleasure… it’s not going to turn you into a criminal just because you watch.

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