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.
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.
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