Total Control review – Mailman is superb, but real #Auspol has more drama | Luke Buckmaster

With such a commanding screen presence, it’s hard to believe this Canberra-set series is Deborah Mailman’s first leading role

As a set-up for films and TV shows, average people entering the soul-destroying world of politics is an oldie but a goodie, a vehicle to explore the preservation of personal values in complex and compromising environments.

The most famous example is Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington, about a wholesome Boy Rangers leader parachuted into the role of a senator. Just one year later Australia got its homegrown equivalent, the director Ken G. Hall’s neglected feelgood 1940 comedy Dad Rudd, MP, which follows an ordinary farmer who runs for parliament and prevails against wealthy vested interests.

Women have been woefully under-represented in this genre, which is perhaps unsurprising given they are woefully under-represented in the real-life arena. In one scene from ABC TV’s six-part drama Total Control – formerly titled Black Bitch but renamed following criticism from the Indigenous community – a federal government apparatchik (Harry Richardson) admits to the protagonist Alex (Deborah Mailman) that “some say we have a woman problem”.

Alex bluntly responds: “No, the problem is you don’t have enough women.”

That bluntness is important, because Alex is the latest straight-talkin’ layperson to “tell it like it is”, while being run through the political mincer. She has been selected by prime minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths, who recently directed Ride Like a Girl and co-created Total Control along with Darren Dale, Miranda Dear and Stuart Page) for a spot on her team, following the death of a senator. Alex accepts the role with understandable trepidation.

There are times when it feels like we may be in store for a Bulworth-style spectacle, revolving around a shoot-from-the-hips political newbie with nothing to lose. However, the drama in Total Control is meeker than that (at least the first three episodes, which form the extent of this review), and the stakes feel surprisingly low, given several hot-button issues explored – such as entrenched racism and inequality, land rights, and incarceration of Indigenous Australians.

This is in part because the focus is too often on the PM’s political fortunes, rather than Alex’s. When Anderson confronts the possibility of a spill, the prevailing feeling among viewers is likely to be “so what?”. We’ve seen this situation play out so many times in the real-life soap opera of Australian politics.

An early sequence in the first episode combines the Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” political chinwag with a bit of true-blue Aussie flavour. Strolling down a suburban street during a warm afternoon, the PM wearing a wide-brimmed hat, Anderson acknowledges that Alex has worked in local council and tried to improve living conditions in her community.

“You’ve had the occasional win,” she says, “but if you want to make big change – generational change – the only way to do that is through the power of government.” It’s not hard to imagine a similar conversation taking place between, say, Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett circa 2006, before the musician and anti-uranium activist “got a seat at the table” and became part of the same system he rebelled against, overseeing expansion of the uranium industry.

The obvious question in Total Control, therefore, is to what extent will the protagonist sell out her values? Her first conundrum involves whether to recite a maiden speech written by herself, or a party-approved version handed to her by the aforementioned apparatchik.

It’s not exactly a thrilling test of her character or baptism of fire. Especially given that the key reason why Alex was picked by the PM involves a dramatic incident during which the protagonist fearlessly confronts a shooter, establishing her as a force to be reckoned with. A video of this event goes viral, making her a national hero.

Jonathan (Harry Richardson) and Alex (Deborah Mailman) in new ABC series Total Control.
‘In the age of Donald Trump, Clive Palmer and Jacqui Lambie, truth really is stranger – and more dramatically engaging – than fiction.’ Photograph: John Platt

A considerable amount of the drama involves small actions that don’t, or shouldn’t, mean all that much, but are amplified due to the political setting, with its entrenched set of expectations and protocols. During a TV interview, for instance, one of Alex’s acts of defiance is taking her shoes off mid-conversation. Again, not exactly thrilling.

Part of the problem, in terms of creating interesting dramatic spectacle, is that Alex is a thoroughly reasonable, rational, calm and trustworthy individual. There’s nothing wrong with exploring such characters, but in the age of Donald Trump and our own homegrown colourful personalities (such as Clive Palmer and Jacqui Lambie) truth really is stranger – and in this instance more dramatically engaging – than fiction.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

Total Control’s controversial original title, Black Bitch, suggested an explosive in-your-face production – which this series is not. It is, however, competently directed by Rachel Perkins (also a co-writer of the script, with Stuart Page), who wraps the story together in a generally engaging style. The series does feel particularly modest, however, compared with her excellent recent work helming the feature film Jasper Jones and the Mystery Road TV spin-off.

Total Control’s one unquestionably outstanding element is Deborah Mailman, who gives her first leading performance (though Trisha Morton-Thomas is also terrific as Alex’s mother Jan). Can you believe that? Mailman is such a good actor it feels like she has been in total control, as it were, of every production she’s ever starred in.

Mailman’s projection of leadership qualities – strength, compassion and tenacity – is part of the reason she has such a commanding screen presence. And, hmmm, those qualities are important for real-life politicians, right? So ... Mailman for PM? Stranger things can (and continue) to happen.

• Total Control premieres on the ABC at 8.30pm on Sunday

Contributor

Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Stateless review – thrilling, surprising drama interrogates painful Australian truths
The Cate Blanchett-led ABC series, just picked up by Netflix, offers a psychologically charged and nail-biting depiction of immigration detention

Luke Buckmaster

27, Feb, 2020 @4:14 AM

Article image
Glitch season two review – flounders between necrophiliac soap opera and boring zombie show
Despite admirable acting, the new series of this sumptuous Australian gothic fails to revive drop-dead boring characters or its dramatic credibility

Luke Buckmaster

13, Sep, 2017 @5:30 AM

Article image
New Gold Mountain review – lush neo-western takes a new route through gold rush Australia
Beautiful, heightened drama series following the Chinese community in 1850s Ballarat gives a fresh, cinematic spin on history

Luke Buckmaster

12, Oct, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
The Heights review – finally, a warm, complex and credible Australian soap opera
The ABC’s 30-episode drama proves that diversity done right is not just tokenism, but makes for genuinely better TV

Donna Lu

21, Feb, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Everything's Gonna Be Okay review – Josh Thomas's Please Like Me follow-up misses its marks
Based on the first two episodes, the comedian’s US-made show suffers from disjointed direction and soap opera shots – but there are hints it will get better

Luke Buckmaster

17, Jan, 2020 @12:21 AM

Article image
Wrong Kind of Black: Boori Monty Pryor’s quirky web series a return to 70s Australia
ABC show tells the story of Australia’s ‘black superman’, set in a time of deadly Afros, chunky boots and stratified racism

Jack Latimore

05, Aug, 2018 @12:58 AM

Article image
Shock art: can grossing people out be considered an art form?
In her new web series, art historian Christina Chau asks whether disgusting viewers runs the risk of closing minds instead of opening them

Simon Miraudo

20, Mar, 2017 @5:04 AM

Article image
Sunshine review – basketball and racial tensions collide in standout Australian drama
Anthony LaPaglia’s school-of-hard-knocks coach brings star power to this superb new series set in outer-west Melbourne

Luke Buckmaster

18, Oct, 2017 @3:06 AM

Article image
Dead Lucky review – Rachel Griffiths brings poise to convoluted, soapy cop drama
SBS miniseries can’t quite transcend its garish tabloid narrative but is a welcome break from crime TV’s blue gloom

Lauren Carroll Harris

24, Jul, 2018 @8:23 PM

Article image
The Commons review – eerily plausible and uncomfortably timely climate crisis drama
Stan’s most expensive show so far envisions how Australia will change as a consequence of global heating, and the results make you stop and wonder

Luke Buckmaster

25, Dec, 2019 @7:00 PM