A successful criminal pursuit

Show of the week: Underbelly: Badness, Channel Nine, Tuesday, 8.30pm

FIRST, let's deal with that easy-to-mock title. Yes, it's uninspiring. And it was duly savaged online when the promos began airing last month. But here's the thing: Badness is anything but.

Although there have been some patchy outings (mostly involving Matthew Newton), Underbelly is a durable brand of Australian scripted drama.

Last year's instalment, Underbelly: Razor, an at-times cartoonish period piece examining Sydney's razor gangs, was treated shabbily by critics. I would argue unfairly so. Its ambitions were a little modest, and bad accents aside it remained entertaining through its 13-episode run.

As Bikie Wars proved earlier this year, even if you have a cracking true-crime story at your disposal, the Underbelly template is not simply replicated.

Badness, then, returns the franchise to where it works best: a contemporary setting. It depicts events between 2001 and 2012.

Being a true-crime story, in essence there are no real spoilers, so the opening scene confirms that the chief source of Badness, Anthony ''Rooster'' Perish, will, by series end, be caught by his nemesis, Detective Sergeant Gary Jubelin.

It also establishes the two protagonists as the series' anchors. We learn early on that Perish - who at one time was one of Australia's most wanted criminals - is a nasty piece of work.

The Perish role is taken by Jonathan LaPaglia, who before his career-defining turn as Hector in The Slap was perhaps best described as Anthony LaPaglia's lesser-known younger brother.

LaPaglia plays it with searing intent. Perish is defined by the brutal murder of his beloved grandparents, and his anger at that crime and his need to exact revenge form a ruthless and impervious resolve.

LaPaglia, sporting an extraordinary mullet, sells the role well. This is one unpleasant individual.

Perish had previously led a life of crime mostly under the radar of authorities. In episode one, he murders drug maker and police informant Terry Falconer based on what appear to be flimsy grounds.

Falconer's dismembered body was found wrapped in plastic bags in a river north of Sydney in 2001. In real life, Perish and his brother Andrew were convicted last year.

Still, the Perish character is in effect a dramatisation.

''The producers really don't know a lot about this guy; there's no information, there's no video footage or audio, we had no access to family or friends, or his legal counsel,'' LaPaglia told Fairfax's Michael Idato this week. ''Certain events we know from the court transcripts, but who he really is, we're really guessing.''

On the other side, Jubelin, played by Matt Nable, who was burdened with an unfortunate Scottish accent in Bikie Wars, is more convincing here. It's a nuanced performance that shows this policeman's resolve to get his man.

By the end of episode two, Nable begins to foment what should be a fierce rivalry with LaPaglia. And almost stealing the show is former McLeod's Daughters star Aaron Jeffery, who is menacing as the erratic, paranoid police informant who leads Jubelin's team towards Perish.

It's a strong yarn. And it looks terrific. LaPaglia's scenes are often backlit with vivid lime-green and dark-orange hues, helping to propagate the story's ominous overtones.

And the show does not flinch in its depiction of violence and gore. Underbelly enthusiasts will also be relieved to hear the bawdy topless scenes endure. Along with the delightful line ''Show us ya tits!'', one scene begins as a bikie gang is shooting a porn film in a garage.

Though it boasts two Underbelly staples - the franchise theme song It's a Jungle Out There and the knowing narration of Caroline Craig - there are some variations to the traditional blueprint.

The show's run is mercifully brief - just eight episodes, as opposed to the customary 13. And significant time is allotted to telling the law enforcement's side of this story. It took a decade for Jubelin to bring Perish to justice and we foresee the personal and professional price he must pay to make that happen.

As with most true-crime series, it demonstrates that often in the pursuit of one criminal, a hidden web of vice, violence and death is waiting to be exposed.

Underbelly: Badness is hardly flawless, but it possesses a vitality that exploits its richest element: a compelling true-crime story.

The story A successful criminal pursuit first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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