Nick Grant: Having a squiz at Underbelly

Underbelly's new series comes up short, discovers Nick Grant.

Jared Daperis as Squizzy Taylor in 'Underbelly: Squizzy'.
Jared Daperis as Squizzy Taylor in 'Underbelly: Squizzy'.

The latest instalment of Underbelly, television's ongoing celebration of the life and crimes of Australia's most anti-social, begins with title character Squizzy Taylor in close-up, seemingly directly addressing the audience.

Young and good-looking with a dazzling smile, he holds forth about the secrets to successfully completing a criminal caper: (1) obedient minions with a varied set of skills; (2) spot-on timing; (3) a strategically minded leader (ie, him); and, most importantly, (4) confidence, something he has "by the bucket-load". At this point in his dissertation, the camera pulls back to reveal Squizzy is talking to himself in a mirror and he's naked except for undies he immediately removes to underline his point about his abundant self-assurance.

This opening 90 seconds of Underbelly: Squizzy suggests several things about what we can expect from the rest of the eight-part series: (1) the programme will be at pains to present its central character as a telegenic rogue, rather than the thieving, murdering scumbag he really was; (2) there'll be a high degree of stylisation for its own sake (the idea he'd really have this chat with himself doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny, especially as his monologue goes on to include a blow-by-blow account of his current heist plan, not to mention a helpful introduction to each member of his gang); and (3) anachronisms will abound (although set in 1915, this scene swiftly establishes that Melbourne crims of the period had already adopted the modern metrosexual's fondness for full body waxes, as well as the mantra-laden language of 21st-century self-help gurus).

Lest I be accused of an unfair rush to judgment, all of the above assumptions are indeed borne out by the rest of the episode.

In the role of Joseph Leslie Theodore "Squizzy" Taylor (Les to his mates), Jared Daperis doesn't so much give a performance as mount a charm offensive. His Squizzy is a cheerful chancer who engages in increasingly ambitious acts of larceny to feed an ego that is of inverse proportion to his small stature. At just 5 foot 2 inches (156 cm), it's his size the nickname "Squizzy" refers to (although the omniscient narrator delicately notes that "squiz" was also "slang for a bowel motion"), and it's odds on that his over-compensating ego is going to get him in trouble later in the series.

Having got away with a daring robbery in broad daylight, he struggles not to boast to all and sundry that he was the mastermind behind it; instead, he finds some solace in scrapbooking (seriously).

The insistent stylisation, meanwhile, includes freeze frames, slow motion, and copious captions. The most egregious example? As Squizzy daydreams about being a criminal legend, Ned Kelly's iconic armour is superimposed over him, an image that then morphs into a wanted poster. Presumably meant to assure the audience the series isn't old fashioned and boring just because it's set a century ago, it's the technical tricks that quickly become tedious.

As for the anachronisms, they tend to be the standard ones for period dramas: teeth too white, language too modern, everything too clean.

The episode's fatal misstep, though, is stealing the climatic scene from the Usual Suspects, a theft that made me realise I'd much rather watch that movie again than any more of this series, which comes up short by almost every measure.

Underbelly: Squizzy premieres 9.30pm Wednesday on TV3.

- Herald on Sunday

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