East West 101: articles

More than just another cop show

When East West 101 won two of the top gongs at last year's Logie awards, a large majority of people around Australia shrugged and shook their heads.

What or who was it?

Lauded by critics, the SBS crime drama which focuses on the racial tensions of a volatile western Sydney had passed a lot of people by.

But accolades from Australia's biggest commercial TV industry award nights made the rest of the country sit up and pay attention.

As well as Logies for most outstanding drama series and most outstanding actor (Don Hany), last year East West 101 was awarded an AFI, a gold medal at the New York Film and Television Festival Awards and three awards at the Los Angeles Awards of Excellence.

It's been a long time coming for the cast and crew of the show, who knew they had something special on their hands from the word go.

"If the (viewing) numbers are up, I'd like to think it had something to do with the show being recognised commercially with the Logies," says Hany, downplaying what impact his setting hearts aflutter on the Ten Network's Offspring may have on this season's figures.

"It was great for the show to be recognised there."

East West 101 tells the story of a western Sydney detective squad battling racial tension on the streets and among their own numbers.

It's been a tough sell, says Hany, who stars as Muslim detective Zane Malik on the show.

"There's kind of a political and an historic understanding that helps you to appreciate the subject matter the show tries to tackle," he said, during a break on the set in Sydney.

"In terms of (most) Australian television, what we've been content to do is feed our audience something that they don't need to necessarily engage with.

"So when you present them with something that requires even a basic understanding of the situation in western Sydney, let alone the Middle East, I think you lose a lot of people."

Susie Porter, who plays Malik's tough-talking boss, agrees East West 101 is a little more highbrow than most cop shows.

"The quality of the writing, the guest actors - it's not your average cop show," says Porter.

"I think often people watch more rubbish than they do good stuff, sometimes.

"But a lot of people I know watch (the show) and love it. It's fast. You have to think as well, it's well written.

"And Don Hany's a spunk," she adds, laughing.

Newcomer Matt Nable, who plays a battle-scarred soldier back from Iraq to rejoin the police force, says he is living every Australian actor's dream by scoring a role on the show.

"Every actor in Australia - that I'm very aware of - would love to be on East West 101. It's sort of the benchmark of Australian drama," says Nable, who spoke to his own former soldier father for advice about his role.

"It is a great show and I've fought really hard to get on it.

"It's as good a TV as we've had on in a long time."

Hany, Porter and Nable all attribute the calibre of the show to its home on SBS.

Hany says it would be much easier, cheaper and safer for SBS to screen some violent "American s***", and that putting money behind a drama like East West 101 is a brave move.

"The show's done well critically because there's an attention to the contract that (SBS) have with the audience which is to engage them in a deeper way and not to provide the action and the violence for the sake of it or to glorify it," he says, pointing to the difference between it and shows like the Nine Network's Underbelly.

"There are other shows where people end up watching and thinking `I want to be that criminal' ... It makes it so much harder to do something that doesn't feed that voracious appetite.

"It's so expensive to make this kind of thing and there's no pay-off because ultimately very few people see it, or you can go and buy CSI or 24 for a fraction of the cost and advertise anything in it. I feel for networks."

East West 101's lead character Detective Malik is inspired by the true story of Ali Rafik - a Muslim detective of Egyptian descent who led a group of detectives in the 1990s nicknamed the "Wog Squad".

In the show, Malik struggles to balance his own ethnic identity with his authoritarian role in his community, all the while dealing with racial prejudice in his workplace.

As the son of an Iraqi father and Hungarian mother, Hany is no stranger to racial tensions in Australia.

"Like a lot of migrants, my parents were very adamant about me being an Aussie and blending in as best as possible, so I didn't learn anything about my father's country until we all started to learn more (when the war broke out)," he says.

"Having a Muslim character is such a delicate area for a commercial network to tread - they're more likely to be a little bit token about it and ... handle the character with kid gloves because they're not sure what people are going to think.

"But it would have been a mistake to depict a Muslim with a high moral ground all the time. I think Malik is very flawed."

Hany says in broaching these current tensions, SBS has broached a subject that most networks wouldn't touch with a barge pole.

"And it's a difficult thing to examine because from the get-go it's hard to distinguish between a moderate and an extremist Muslim, when really Islam is something so foreign to Australians," he says.

"(For the most part) we don't really understand the different between Shi'ite and Sunni and Kurds and Palestinians or Jews."

But for all the very worthy exploration of these themes, don't be fooled, says Hany. There's still plenty of good old-fashioned cop show action.

"In this series because there's a higher body count, there's more bloodshed and the stories affect the characters on a more personal level, there's less time to look around and go `What's it like living in a divided world'," he says.

"We're all just trying to survive. These characters are going through hell."

Season three of East West 101 premieres on SBS One at 8.30pm on Wednesday, April 20.

By Katelyn Catanzariti
April 07, 2011