“Here’s something ya don’t see every day, Chauncey, a mainstream Anglo cop show about a Muslim detective.” And BAM! Frightening sounds and images obliterates the calm urban scene before a response can be recorded.
Flip comment aside, my friends, that’s pretty much the opening of episode one that, in a tense nutshell, permeates the angst-ridden feel of EAST WEST 101, SEASONS 2 & 3, now on DVD from MHz Networks.
While it’s unusual to see an MHz title in English (although some may have a bit of difficulty with the heavy Australian accents), it’s nowhere near as strange as the paranoid narratives that comprise the final two sagas of this three-season mini-series (airing in Oz in 2009 and 2011, respectively).
While the show is non-stop action with a side of rough interpersonal relationships (it makes Breaking Bad look like Who’s the Boss?), EAST WEST insidiously incorporates such topical and toxic themes as inequality (racial and sexual), alternative lifestyles, assimilation pros and cons, bigotry and, natch, terrorism. The Australia of EAST WEST 101 is basically Al-Qaeda-on-the-Barbie, a tinderbox waiting to explode at any quivering second. There is no safe place – the moles are in our midst, and no one is protected or secure, especially regular cast members (many of whom are interwoven into the shows over a plethora of episodes, only to be splattered into three-dimensional wallpaper.
I’ve never seen anything like this show, and I mean that in a good way – in fact, a very good way. The cast is absolutely first-rate, with a chemistry solvent of the most compatible kind. Not that any of their characters are all that nice. There is no cutesy verbal by-play or stereotypical irritants running around the precinct or informing from the streets (which are not as mean as they are vicious). Yet, if I describe the main participants, you’d think it was a throwback to those multi-ethnic roll-call scenes in WWII platoon movies – every cliché in the book. Sounds that way in print. On the screen, as I hope you’ll discover, it’s a different matter entirely. It’s all fresh – and riveting.
The main character is Malik, portrayed by that excellent Australian/Muslim thesp Don Hany. He is unquestionably the rock star of Sydney’s Major Crime Squad. His partner is black (Aaron Fa’aoso), often fighting the backlash of his African brothers. The squad itself is disproportioned in a unique way – insomuch that the majority of the officers are women, including their captain, Patricia Wright – the remarkable Susie Porter. Porter is a fascinating love/hate leader with schizo tendencies. In brief, imagine Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face running a police unit. Wright is conflicted with enough dysfunctional family baggage to outfit the Samsonite department of hell. Her brother is a smarmy career criminal; her father a retired police veteran with a violent sociopathic bent (his motto is kill first, ask questions later). Wright’s all no-nonsense on the job and in the bedroom (although her partners are often of a dubious nature); her persecution of a taxicab-driving serial rapist not surprisingly ends with harrowing consequences. Like almost every sidebar case – it all becomes nefariously intertwined with the big picture, stopping the influx of terrorism into the country. Cynically and brilliantly, the crux of the religious fervor that fuels the rampant fanaticism is revealed to be nothing less than greed – it’s all about the money when the explosion dust clears and the blood is dried. Nice to know that nothing has changed in the 70-plus years since Hollywood unleashed Black Legion, except that the impetus here is international (including some Kochian behind-the-scene Americans) and reaps profits into the trillions.
Of additional interest to the mix are two key detectives, and here’s where one would think that they’re slathering on the schmaltz from the politically correct playbook: Helen Callas (Daniela Farinacci) is not only a lesbian, but a pregnant lesbian in Season Two, and full-blown lesbian mom in Three. Jung Lim (Renee Lim) is the Asian savvy investigator with a weakness for violent men. Each season has its share of government-appointed “terrorist advisors,” who ultimately turn out to be corrupt killers who survived Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and, by methods that would horrify the combined forces behind the Saw franchise.
But it’s Zane Malik who is the glue that holds EAST WEST 101 together. He’s a mass of phobias and insecurity hiding behind a mask of quiet cool. His family concurrently dons Arab togs while playing video games and talking sports and trad culture. Yet his wife, Amina (Tasneem Roc), is extremely religious – a situation not helped by the arrival of her appropriately robed father (played by Hany’s real life pater, Taffy Hany).
The conflicts spill over into Malik’s professional life as well. “How’s it feel to hunt down your own?,” scream members of a mosque. The widow of a possible traitor, lustily attracted to Malik, queries the almost-swayed family man about his people’s non-drinking beliefs, which amuses him to no end.
The Jewish-Arab chaos is dealt with intelligently and is alarmingly premonitory. Discussions about the future of Israelis and the fate of Gaza frighteningly predicts specific events that did indeed unfurl (remember, this show was broadcast in 2009). The racism within the Australian community of Jew against Arab against Jew against WASP is devastating, to say the least.
Even no-brainer slam-dunks are revealed to be more complex that imagined. When Malik goes undercover to snare a billionaire bloodthirsty Arab drug kingpin (monies accrued and used to fund terrorist cells), he becomes disturbingly less eager to pursue the case to its end; the “monster,” who takes him into his confidence, is a loving, caring family man. It drives Malik to near-insanity. Malik’s predicament is slightly remedied when the mass murderer is arrested on a misdemeanor (and subsequently having his head blown off blow during a routine questioning session with Malik’s coworker).
As one might suspect, to carry all of this off, you need a constant flow of creative force, both in front of and behind cameras. The crew, like the cast, reads like a U.N. sign-in sheet. The series is comprised of a liberal dose (in every sense of the word) of Muslims, blacks, Jews, Greeks, Anglos, Asians – you name it, they got it. The entire series was directed by Peter Andrikidis, who did a fantastic job. To keep the scenarios crisp, the shows were all written by different scribes (sometimes in teams), who nevertheless were part of the regular overall EAST WEST company.
The location camerawork by Joseph Pickering has a wisely-chosen documentary flavor, the music a cleverly composed score (by Guy Gross) that uses both white and Arab motifs, visually appended by state-of-the-art special effects that, no pun intended, will blow you away.
Most diverting are the two sets of extras that conclude each season. While I half expected the cast and crew to be jittery mental cases, I was shocked (shocked, do you hear?) to discover that the way they survived the grim proceedings was with humor. The talking-head interviews merely serve to underline this observation. Everyone seems to be immensely enjoying each other’s company and the jokes fly faster than a nighttime line-up on Comedy Central.
Of particular interest was Nim’s revealing that acting is a sideline; she’s actually an accomplished doctor, and was continuously amused by her pals’ revulsion to the realistic body parts strewn over the various bombings, stabbings and butchery that unsettlingly transform the show into a Jackson Pollock version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (for Kim, it was just another day at the office, and she goes on to praise the SFX/makeup crews for getting it just right).
A later segment has the super-serious alter ego of Detective Callas, letting loose with a series of goofy faces during a blooper when she’s trapped in a car after a highway slaughter.
The four DVDs that comprise this 721-minute collection (seven episodes each) look and sound (some nice stereo) pretty good in their PAL-NTSC 16 x 9 anamorphic conversion. There is some slight ghosting, but it’s nothing to gripe about. If there’s anything for us American crime show fans to complain about it encompasses the dilemma of why the hell isn’t there anything of this caliber available here (although the idea of pitching a Muslim detective series to U.S. producers is enough to cause erratic cardiograms a-clickin’ from coast-to-coast!).
The season’s opener, The Lost Boy, literally begins with a bang. A BIG one, as a busy Sydney shopping area is blown to smithereens, leaving a collection of limbs scattered across the sidewalks. Among these remains are those of “Barlow,” the suspected terrorist bomber. But there’s a catch: he’s an NSO undercover detective for the local terrorism branch. Or was he a double-triple-quadruple agent? Most alarming is the revealing of how the bomb was made: identical to the elements comprising the Boston Marathon horror in 2013. This episode originally aired in 2009.
In The Prodigal Son, squad head Pat is plagued by nightmares of finding her own body (as a younger woman and as a girl), paralleling the discovery of a murdered female tied to the on-going investigation of the bombing. Illegal weapons leaks comprising black, white, Jewish, Arab and ex-KGB denizens complicate matters, put off by the arrival of Wright’s rakish brother, a quasi-career criminal involved in a Chinese housing scheme/scam (also linked to terrorist cells). With the added fuel of a volatile loose-cannon father, Pat’s family life becomes a human pressure cooker. Malik, meanwhile, has been chosen to go undercover into the Akmal Fahd crime family, which causes both professional and personal disruptions.
Just Cargo complicates matters more when the murdered agent’s/terrorist’s wife starts having feelings for Malik. Russian smuggling of “illegal” people and weapons, tied to the Akmal empire, add to the seemingly impossible intertwined evil that make up Al-Qaeda and other more severe low-profile groups (remember, this was before most of the world was aware of ISIL).
In Ice in the Veins, Malik’s smooth melding into the Akmal family (both the crime and home variety) personally affects the detective, as he develops a reluctant friendship with the mob kingpin/terrorist. It’s “too close for comfort” to the nth degree. Malik’s own home life is changed with the much-awaited arrival of his uncle from the Middle East. The Akmal universe further downwardly spirals with an unmasking of sex and drug crimes. Akmal himself is finally, thanks to Malik, apprehended – causing anguished emotions for the cop, not remedied when the incarcerated criminal is found murdered in his cell.
A new crime lord is revealed in Men of Conscience, wherein Barlow’s widow (Alin Sumarwata, star Hany’s real-life spouse), drops all pretense with the needy offer to Malik, “In Islam, is a mistress counted as a second wife?” That’s not her biggest problem, as Malik soon discovers. The cross-bow killing of a gay informer/player is yet another piece of the crime puzzle. As the noose starts to tighten, Pat’s brother (Gyton Grantley) is mortally wounded in an apparent random drive-by shooting. Or was it?
“I want the bastards who did this behind bars,” is a rather subtle demand made by Pat’s dad (Richard Carter), who intends to take matters into his own hands regardless of the efforts of the police in Another Life. The shooter is pegged as a Chinese drug kingpin/war lord – with ties to terrorist cells. Sophie and Malik’s non-relationship is enough to cause his wife to move out with their family.
In Atonement, villains are revealed, and dealt with in like manner (not pretty). Pat is horrified to discover that her confidante is a killer. Malik pays for his treachery by being ambushed by the extant Akmal family, which brings his wife and kids back to bedside.
The final act of the series takes the action and politics to the limit of in-your-facism heights.
With each episode framed by a Malik’s recur-ring assimilation nightmare of a desert execu-tion by an ISIL-esque henchman, Season 3 delves deeper into the too-large-to-fail interna-tional coalition between terrorism, war-mongering, capitalist profiteering – you know, that stuff. An opening mass-murder/armored car robbery triggers the action in The Hero’s Standard.
The horrific death of a Malik family member is tied to the above, as racial hatred and paranoia grip the squad and the local community in Heart of Darkness. It is here that following the terror trail and the money trail end up in a forked road. This hopelessness is compounded by Detective Lim’s giving herself to assigned police consultant and former soldier of fortune Travis (Matt Nable). That Travis is a murderous psychopath with a vault full of dirty secrets causes the squad’s supposed security to lethally unravel.
Jew vs. Palestinian becomes a focal point in a sensational homicide in Jerusalem, all tied to the opening robbery and traitorous activities of supposed 100% patriotic workers inside the safety net of Australian law enforcement.
Transit of Venus sardonically parallels the sexual histories of the principals as they reflect on the investigative events surrounding the vi-olent political ticking time bomb that comprises their current case. Malik’s wife announces she’s pregnant, Lim can’t differentiate between the kick of her new dangerous sex life and the logic of being locked into a terrible situation with a lying, deranged lover. Pat’s personal vendetta against an alleged serial rapist (Jacek Koman) takes the worst-case scenario turn.
The Price of Salvation continues Pat’s journey into darkness, not helped by the return of her violence-prone father, who vows his own personal vengeance.
Behold a Pale Horse connects the dots be-tween terrorism, drug cartels, the sex trade and the global munitions empire as the squad closes in on the surprising kingpin (Aden Young) behind the carnage.
Revelation ends literally ends the series – as it began – with a bang, this time of a more personal nature. The conclusion of Malik’s nightmares charts his future decision and pro-vides a quasi-reasonable conclusion to a violent part of his (and his family’s) life.
More now than ever EAST WEST 101 is practically must-see viewing for anyone interested in the current political climate. To call it prophetic is genuinely scary, but fiction need not be pretty to be engrossing (in fact, it’s probably advisable to avoid that route altogether unless you’re MGM in the 1940s). While the show is occasionally somber and even unpleasant, it is never boring; in fact, it’s often addictive. It’s one of those rare series where you really can’t wait to see what happens. As an American, it’s fascinating to see how another country deals with the volatile topic of terrorism and politics (especially since the Australian right wing is currently as toxic as ours, with an equal amount of extremist nut-jobs). Suffice to say, horror is horror no matter how diverse the culture.
EAST WEST 101. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Stereo-surround audio. MHz Networks Corpora-tion/Knapman Wyld Television. SKU-16551. SRP: $39.95.