The problem with controversial new series
AS FAR as its contribution to Australian TV drama goes, Romper Stomper is a well-crafted, ambitious and slick production.
It plays its tension well and the performances - especially Lachy Hulme's monstrous white nationalist leader - are chillingly good.
Stan should be commended for daring to put out something controversial, even if it's based on existing intellectual property.
It's quite a feat when the TV networks that used to dominate the space - Channels 7, 9 and 10 - have mostly given up on making quality dramas, preferring to churn out mediocre, crowd-pleasing, family-friendly, advertiser-friendly fare, if even that.
Set 25 years after the original film that launched Russell Crowe's career, the action has moved from the neo-Nazi skinheads on the fringe to the hate speech disguised as free speech of mainstream Australian politics. And the targets are now Muslims, rather than the Vietnamese migrants of 1992.
Hulme stars as Blake Farron, the leader of a white nationalist, anti-Muslim group called Patriot Blue - a thinly veiled fictionalisation of any number of real-life clowns.
He's a different beast to Crowe's Hando. Farron is a middle-class business owner and couches some of his rhetoric as a defence of Christianity, unaware of the irony. Farron commands a small group of extremists, regaling them with recitations of Henry Lawson and speeches about how white culture is under attack and the kind of nonsense we're, sadly, used to hearing spew out of the mouths of fanatics.
The series opens with Farron's group protesting a Halal food festival in Melbourne when the extreme-left Antifasc (the series' version of Antifa) appear and it turns violent.
In the ensuing melee, a Muslim university student, Laila, unwittingly becomes the face of her community.
Also on the scene is Kane (Toby Wallace), the son of Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie, reprising her role from the 1992 film). His arrival into this powder keg escalates things quickly as the group turns to street violence against anyone "not worthy" in their warped creed.
What's problematic about Romper Stomper is why this and why now? In announcing the series, creator and director of the 1992 film, Geoffrey Wright, said the show's examination of race relations in Australia is more relevant, and pressing, than ever.
But you have to wonder if it's necessary. What is Romper Stomper's purpose? If it's purely for entertainment, then you have to question the wisdom of exploiting the politics of division, and depicting these white nationalists, these violent, so-called defenders of Australian values, gloriously speechifying about how it's been assaulted.
While the show is better than the film at countering time spent with the racists by giving some insight into the other groups - this time, the anarchists and the Muslim community - it still gives a lot more airtime and complexity to the white nationalists. There's a real danger in that imbalance.
If Romper Stomper is aiming for something loftier, to be provocative art that holds a mirror up to society, then it's certainly done that - the rhetoric used by the white nationalists are almost word-for-word what we hear in real life, including in Parliament.
But who would be surprised by any of it? That's the kind of ugly discourse aired in mainstream media and on Facebook every day, sometimes it's also on our streets, especially if there's a new mosque to protest. Romper Stomper isn't shedding light on some murky underbelly nor is it offering something resembling steps forward.
And if it's meant to persuade you one way or another on extremist politics, I imagine most people already have pretty strong views on racism or extremism.
A lot of viewers will struggle to sit through this violent series in large part because it is such unsettling and unpleasant viewing. If you usually keep sane by turning off the TV whenever Pauline Hanson pops her head up, you're hardly going to volunteer for five and a half hours of this.
But then if you're someone who might be sympathetic to the bigotry on display, feeling like you've been slighted in some way and looking for someone else to blame, and an excuse, then, well, like I said, Romper Stomper is problematic.
On a technical level, it's quite an achievement - it even reuses the same drumbeat score to convey that sense of pending malevolence and pandemonium - though it lacks the momentum or manic energy of the original by virtue of the different medium.
Whether it's thoughtful enough to work as a piece of political art is less clear.
Romper Stomper is available to stream on Stan.