The 1999 crime comedy Two Hands occupies a special place in the annals of Australian nostalgia as one of those unpretentious pictures that took a while to be vaunted as a bona fide classic. Memorably starring Heath Ledger as a daft bouncer who stuffs up the basic job he’s given by a Sydney gangster (Bryan Brown) and gets, as they say, ‘in over his head’, fans of the film were surprised a couple of months ago by the news that a belated spin-off series is currently in development.
Returning writer/director Gregor Jordan has described the upcoming show as “an action-charged comic revenge thriller” that’s “inspired by” the original. We’ll have to wait to see exactly what that means, but what we do know is that the Two Hands TV series joins a growing slate of Australian productions presenting small-screen extensions of true blue classics. A cynic (me? Never!) may observe that this is clearly a case of nostalgia-mongering, but these exercises do often result in quality viewing.
From high-school drama to outback sleuthing and uber gnarly horror, here are five of the best TV spin-offs of Australian movies.
On-screen Australian detectives and crime-solvers tend to be well-dressed suburbanites: think the gorgeously garbed Miss Fisher, the cardie-wearing Jack Irish, the corporate-looking Jane Halifax. Aaron Pedersen’s Detective Jay Swan, though, is very different, from his Akubra hat, jeans, cowboy boots and stoicism to his eyes that see right through you and zero tolerance for bullshit. He is also, importantly, Indigenous Australian, which deeply informs the perspective of the Mystery Road franchise, spanning two films and two TV series to date – with a third (prequel) series on the way.
Core to Mystery Road is the concept of dual kinds of laws: the colonial, white-oriented variety, and those that have existed for far longer in Indigenous Australian society (this is also a key theme of the 1982 documentary Two Laws and the recent feature film High Ground). Swan is torn between two sets of laws, two cultures, two ways of seeing the world. This adds a meaty philosophical foundation to stories that also deliver the goods genre-wise, unspooling narratives about disappearances, corruption and criminal syndicates, loaded with procedural and noir-ish elements.
In the first TV series Swan teams up with a tough-as-nails older cop (played by the legendary Judy Davis, who also ain’t got time for guff) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands in a remote town. The second series begins with the discovery of a headless corpse floating in mangroves; more important than the location of the missing noggin, of course, is who killed this poor headless fellow and why. Acting-wise, Pedersen’s great performance carries the franchise. Mark Coles Smith, who will play his younger self in the prequel series, has big shoes to fill.
Available on ABC iview.
I have long held fond memories of spending time with the scallywags from Heartbreak High, a spin-off of the 1993 Australian film The Heartbreak Kid that ran for seven seasons – from 1994 to 1999. But watching an old show one used to love in the cold light of the modern world can be a sobering experience, even becoming a case of “what was my younger self thinking?!”
Revisiting the first 10 episodes of Heartbreak High in preparation for this article, I am happy to report encountering the opposite: a grittily sophisticated and dramatically engaging series styled with a hot, slightly scuzzy streetside aesthetic that feels totally genuine.
Alex Dimitriades leads the cast as Nick, one of many attitude-filled students at a high school in a multicultural Sydney suburb – among others Con (Salvatore Coco), Danielle (Emma Roche), Peter (Scott Major), Jodie (Abi Tucker), Rose (Katherine Halliday) and Steve (Corey Page). Their unruly behaviour gives their young new English and history teacher, Christina (Sarah Lambert), the proverbial baptism of fire, setting the show up as a Dangerous Minds-esque ‘school of hard knocks’ drama.
Christina’s attempts to make Shakespeare cool are dramatically eclipsed by the politics of the schoolyard, which is presented as a microcosm of society – enabling discussions of subjects including racism, inequality, sexism and freedom of the press. Heartbreak High is more diverse than many shows produced today, with – at least in the first season – an aversion to soap opera sentimentality. For many viewers of a certain age, the rockin’ electric intro music will summon a very pleasant kind of acid flashback. Oh: and a Netflix reboot of the show is currently in the works.
Available on Netflix.
Picnic At Hanging Rock
A TV show following in the footsteps of Peter Weir’s 1975 masterpiece, one of the defining features of the Australian New Wave and perhaps the most impressively hallucinogenic film in our national canon? Heresy! Fools! Zeitgeist-monstering meatheads! These were my initial thoughts upon learning of the re-adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s infamous 1967 novel about the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls at Hanging Rock.
You can imagine my surprise, then, to be rather taken in by this full-throttle reimagining (created by Larysa Kondracki, who directed it alongside Amanda Brotchie and Michael Rymer), which is also intensely trippy but in a snazzier, more bling-filled style. The series is visually interesting from the first shot: a long take following Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer, from Game Of Thrones) who, dressed in a black widow’s dress, inspects a lavish property in Macedon, Victoria that will become the private school from which the girls disappear.
This moment does not fully capture the retina-burning appeal of the stylistic experience to come: particularly a colour palette as glossy as boiled lollies glistening in the sun and gorgeous wardrobes prioritising aesthetic indulgence over realism. The same can be said of the series in general. The plotting is a wee bit nebulous at times, and like most TV spin-offs the running time feels overlong, but the experience is tonally stunning – all the way up to a haunting finale.
Available on BINGE.
With a disgustingly effective shit-eating performance as tourist-loathing serial killer Mick Taylor, John Jarratt snorted, snarled and shot his way into the canon of Australia’s most legendary villains. Introduced in Greg McLean’s smash-hit 2005 horror movie, this primordial filthbag is the ultimate embodiment of the “we don’t like your kind ’round here” sentiment, putting small town versus city slicker animosity – well explored in Hollywood horror movies – within an Australian context.
Thus: lots of shots of arid Australian outback and camping trips gone horrifically awry, courtesy of ol’ mate Mick and his Leatherface-type ways. The first season begins hard and fast, with the holidaying family of 19-year-old American college student Eve (Lucy Fry) killed off barely 10 minutes in. Having narrowly escaped, Eve vows to get revenge on the Akubra-wearing psychopath, building up to a literally and figuratively explosive finale – the final episode returning McLean to the director’s chair.
Season two adheres to the rules of horror sequels, as outlined in Scream: i.e. the body count is greater and the death scenes more elaborate. This time a busload of stranded tourists suffer Mick’s wrath. In one early scene, Mick buries one guy in termite-filled sand and removes his tongue, justifying the gnarly quip: “Cat’s got your tongue, ay!” Both seasons have some flat spots but deliver the desired thrills and spills, and are strikingly shot.
Available on Stan.
Exploring the influence of the church on the state and religion’s relevance in an increasingly modern world is fertile ground for dramatists. Take the excellent 1991 Australian miniseries Brides Of Christ and Fred Schepisi’s semi-autobiographical 1976 film The Devil’s Playground. Like Schepisi’s hard-hitting classic, a core focus of this sequel series is child abuse within the Catholic church, as well as the question of whether it should embrace modern values in a “fallen world” – as Bishop Quaid (Don Hany) puts it.
Set in 1988, 35 years after the events in the film, protagonist Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is now a psychiatrist, taking a central role in a narrative that begins with a child’s disappearance and morphs into a story exploring cover-ups, deep-seated trauma and political influence.
On an atmospheric level the series is overlit, the screenplay crying out for a darker and moodier look. Some of the performers (particularly Hany) walk the line between melodramatic and overacting, while acting greats Jack Thompson and Toni Collette are under-used. Nevertheless the series (directed by Tony Krawitz and Rachel Ward) engagingly explores an always topical subject and gathers steam as it moves forward towards a dramatically satisfying finale involving a Sydney MP (Collette) lifting the lid on the church’s cover-ups.
Available on Google Play.