Tidelands review – Netflix's first Australian original is pretty but vacuous

In prioritising mystery and beach bods over genuine feeling, the waterlogged show feels shallow

Netflix’s first original Australian series (not including the soporific spy drama Pine Gap, an ABC co-production) has arrived, feeling rather sodden and lumbering – like a large feeble sea creature dragged reluctantly out of the water.

There are plenty of beach bods in the cast of Tidelands – with spilling cleavage and ripped abdomens a-plenty – but its aesthetic is moody and theatrical, as if the actors rocked up to star in a Coke commercial and were surprised to discover themselves bathed in arty lighting.

The premise of the show, created by Stephen M Irwin (who penned Australia Day and the Wake in Fright reboot) and co-written by Irwin and Leigh McGrath, combines a small town Australian setting with quasi-Greek mythology. The fictitious fishing village Orphelin Bay is populated by humans as well as half-humans/half-sirens called Tidelanders.

Disguising soap opera as supernatural drama, or perhaps making the point that they are not necessarily different things, the central location feels a little like a bizarro Good Place: a community sort of real and sort of not, with hierarchies and obscure protocols, managed by an otherworldly being whose daily duties get bogged down by meaningless drama.

She is Adrielle (Elsa Pataky), a mysterious leader with a slow and airy way of speaking intended to imply wisdom, turning even simple lines (such as “come back to us when you’re ready”) into poetic statements. She is a combination of sorceress, queen, cult leader, surfer babe, Bond villain and Daenerys-esque matriarch. When asked about the exact nature of her role as ringleader of the Tidelanders (“what are you, royalty?”) she obliquely and pretentiously responds: “I’m just a mother to those without mothers.”

The first episode (this review encompasses eps one to four) begins at sea on a dark and stormy night. A naked woman on a boat pushing her thumbs into one unfortunate man’s eye sockets. The director Toa Fraser and the screenwriters unfold the narrative in a disorientating way, with no clear protagonist and a snafued storyline that eventually finds clarity as the running time approaches double digits. Cal McTeer (Charlotte Best) emerges as the lead character: an arsonist fresh out of prison who returns home to Orphelin Bay fighting off visions of a traumatic past, illustrated through intensely graded flashbacks.

The women are, typically speaking, empowered and headstrong characters who don’t suffer fools nor get bossed around (at one point Cal, after flirting with a man in a bar, instructs him to “take your shrivelled dick and fuck off”). Because they have toughness and agency they don’t – the logic appears to go – necessarily need (many) clothes. Given such a wide scope for fantasy, with any number of crazy things that could be figuratively or literally dredged from the water, a sobering amount of the story focuses on Cal’s discovery that her brother Augie (Aaron Jakubenko) is using the family fishing boat to transport drugs.

Tidelands belongs to a spate of recent Australian television productions that create unconventional forms of humans or human-esque characters as a means to ponder the things that bind people together and things that tear us apart. In Cleverman it was the “Hairies”; in Glitch the undead; in The Kettering Incident, well, no spoilers (can we have season two already?); and in Stan’s upcoming Bloom, people who have drank from the fountain of youth – the symbolic elixir hardened into the form of magic berries.

Aaron Jakubenko, Elsa Pataky in Tidelands.
‘Its aesthetic is moody and theatrical, as if the actors rocked up to star in a Coke commercial and were surprised to discover themselves bathed in arty lighting.’ Photograph: Jasin Boland/Netflix

Like in Bloom, water is a key motif in Tidelands. In at least one sense, however, the two shows are polar opposites: Tidelands prioritises mystery over feeling, and Bloom feeling over mystery – as if acknowledging (quite rightly) that without emotional investment even the world’s greatest mysteries can seem dull and vapid.

Sadly those words too often describe Tidelands. When the shows works its atmosphere is heavy and drips with dark beauty. When it doesn’t, which is a lot of the time, it feels cold and muscle-bound, pumped up in the wrong places.

• Tidelands is released on Netflix on December 14


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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