The Strip: articles

Paradise vice

Why has it taken so long for Surfers to become the setting for a crime drama series, asks Graeme Blundell

IF the Gold Coast, that place of obstinate philistinism, with its mix of sun, beaches, theme parks and colourful local fauna, is Australia's Florida, then Surfers Paradise is channelling Miami. Vanessa Gray and Aaron Jeffery

In Surfers there are the same kinds of frontage floggers, condo developers, pollution violators and all manner of despicable merchants as there are in Miami.

New subdivisions have erupted like cankers in all directions; thousands upon thousands of cookie-cutter houses, jammed together so tightly it looks as if you could jump from roof to roof for miles on end. Then there is the coast's languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and occasional breath-grabbing beauty.

If place represents fate in crime fiction, you would have to wonder why it has taken so long for Surfers to become the setting for a local television crime drama series.

It finally has, in Knapman Wyld's stylish, and pleasing, The Strip, which like Seven's City Homicide is a commercial, character-based procedural police drama, exploring tightly knit tales set against the disorderly facts of social instability, personal unrest and straight-out civiccorruption.

"In the beginning we worried about the implausibility of solving a major crime every 45 minutes," says Frankie J. Holden, who plays top local cop Inspector Max Nelson, boss of the Main Beach CIB, in the show. "But this is a fertile place for bad crime with a transient population, many nightclubs, sex clubs, discos and a lot of new immigrants." He says the crime-a-show thing worried him until he realised as he sat on his condo balcony at night after rehearsals that all he could hear was the sound of sirens.

I'm reminded of something Miami crime novelist Carl Hiaasen told me about his home town. Whenever he goes anywhere in the world and says he's from Miami, people duck. "They either dip their heads expecting a bullet or they look at you just like you got off a spaceship."

The Surfers of The Strip is not as lurid as the world of Miami Vice or CSI: Miami, though the series has just started. But the Gold Coast setting is still a world of lurking dangers, swinging, sprawling and rapidly changing, perfect for producing the situations and tempo indispensable to fast-moving detective stories.

The Strip centres on the Criminal Investigation Bureau, a small and elite unit of detectives who investigate the serious crimes in Australia's playground of excess. Holden's Nelson is master of the Strip's landscape and its peculiar brand of weirdos, corrupt officials and sun seekers. He bounces through life like a pinball, responding shrewdly to the moment and giving little thought to the future.

Detective Frances Tully (Vanessa Gray) is a local with the knowledge of all the badness on the coast. Her partner, Detective Jack Cross (Aaron Jeffery), a tough cop from the south, is newly arrived in the hope of patching up a broken marriage with his ex-wife, DPP prosecutor Marcia Cross (Alice Parkinson).

The same show on the ABC, SBS or cable might have been darker, more sinister and polemical. But The Strip's cops are never going to beat and torture suspected drug lords, blow up Russian arms dealers with plastic explosives wired to an interrogation chair, or almost drown crooks in a barrel of used motor oil in order to gain a confession.

Like the cops of the successful City Homicide, the new Surfers cops' detection methods absorb us with their banality: routine interrogation, painstaking scrutiny of bureaucratic records, legwork, stake-outs, the use of informants and, especially, serendipitous trial and error.

There is little play with red herrings or shifting interpretations of clues and suspects and, unlike some of the American procedurals, no treatise on crime and punishment. Lightly using irony, obsession and allusiveness, The Strip moves fast, concentrating on simple, linear stories, the producers wisely eschewing dubiously unintelligent detours and coincidences.

"Most TV cop shows give you sharp investigations and great narrative drive," creator Steve Knapman says. "We are now more interested in the complexities of the characters rather than the way they drive the mystery."

The trick with character-based TV crime is in avoiding the comedic sentimentality of soapies, which The Strip certainly does with a sardonic, offbeat style of interaction. "The point of difference with other cop shows is the humour, especially in the playing style," Holden says. "It's a derisive Queensland-style of humour; no one takes anyone too seriously."

Like City Homicide, The Strip deliberately eschews the CSI-approach. The cops solve crimes in the dogged, old-fashioned way, though the two policewomen appear to have an empathy for the psycho-sociological motivations underpinning violence the men don't share.

We may see them operating more by intuition (these days even on TV they would never describe it as a woman's gift) and by perseverance and courage than through collecting and investigating clues or material evidence. In fact there are enough plausible strong women in this show that they may, in time, become the dominant group, with the men the eye candy.

Grey's handsome Tully is especially hard-bitten, her tongue abrasive and common. She's a terrific new cop character, one with a dating ritual, it seems, which has left a succession of males scratching their heads as she abandons them without notice and moves on to the next.

"She's a kind of a Howard Hawks woman," Knapman says, referring, of course, to the great American director for whom the threat women pose to men was a recurring motif. Hawks wanted to put an insolent woman on the screen for the first time, as free a spirit as any of the men. And that's what Knapman's Tully represents, someone who can give it back to the blokes without sacrificing sexiness, womanliness.

There is much play on her romantic callousness. In last week's debut episode it was established as a key plot point. She explained her sex life to the slightly moralistic Jack Cross: "A smile on my face and no delusions hanging around my neck."

You sense that for once in local TV copland, if a woman's private life is a failure in traditional and modern terms, her professional life offers compensatory success and fulfillment.

Joe Pickering's photography gives us the city as a surface of specious and ambiguous glamour hiding depths of corruption. He perfectly captures the right untrustworthy tone, a staple in all good detective fiction.

Knapman showed with East West 101 that he understands how place exposes character. Dark deeds on black days demand dark places, or at least blinding sunshine, a whiff of thick sunscreen-lotion-tinged tropical air, see-through sarongs and hard-faced blondes with manicurist's voices and a way with knives.

By Graeme Blundell
September 06, 2008
The Australian