There’s an old saying attributed to the great American writer and humourist Mark Twain that goes you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. With Three’s new true crime series Far North, creator, writer and director David White didn’t need to heed Twain’s winking advice. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Indeed, in some parts of the series, White didn’t. In an interview with The Listener’s Russell Baillie, White admitted to directly lifting parts from the court transcript and inserting them verbatim into his script. These passages, it turns out, are some of the funniest exchanges in the show, highlighting just how bumbling and inept the real-life wannabe drug barons actually were.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Far North, which screens on Monday nights at 8.35pm and streams on ThreeNow, recounts the true story of how in 2016, a mechanic and his aquarobics-instructing wife found themselves at the centre of an international drug deal that involved Chinese drug lords, Australian-Tongan smugglers and half a billion dollars worth of meth.
The action takes place up north in the small coastal town of Ahipara, which is a short 15-minute drive from Kaitaia. The show is split into three stories. The main plot follows Ed and Heather and shows how their good deed in offering to help some townies launch their boat in the rough waters of 90 Mile Beach sucks them into the record-breaking drug deal.
Plotline number two is set on the Chinese smuggling boat used to import the meth. Told in subtitles, it follows the all-female crew as they bobble about in the ocean, far off the coast, waiting to be rescued with half a tonne of Class A drugs in the hold and quickly dwindling food and water supplies in the galley.
And the third follows the bungling, budding drug barons who have flown into Aotearoa from across the ditch and are looking to get rich with their once-in-a-lifetime deal.
The three narratives are woven together wonderfully with each offering a different vibe and viewing experience. Ed and Heather’s storyline, the main thrust of the series, plays out like a mystery thriller with the couple slowly piecing together what’s going on around them as the words, actions and story of their new friends start conflicting and falling apart.
On the boat it’s a serious survival drama as the women’s supplies run out and they begin to wonder what will be worse; their ruthless boss leaving them to die or being rescued and grotesquely tortured with a blowtorch — the signature way their boss signals his displeasure with his employees. Meanwhile, the hopeful young drug kingpin’s story is a riotous comedy of errors as bad decisions, bad luck and just generally being bad at criminality conspire against them every step of the way.
It’s a delicate balancing act and one that the show pulls off superbly as its moments of genuine tension give way to suspense or laughter. The episode that sees Ed on his tractor attempting to help the clumsy gang and the Chinese boss launch their hugely inappropriate boat into the ocean is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
Because the actual real-life events are borderline farcical — the gang’s cover story for heading out to sea is so they can spread the ashes of their dearly departed brother — the success of the show rests on the believability of the actors portraying Ed and Heather.
With Temuera Morrison and Robyn Malcolm slipping on the couple’s favoured attire of checkered Swanndris, there are no worries there. The pair bring a grounded sense of realism to even the most fanciful situations that their characters find themselves in. They’re simply fantastic.
As is the double act of Fei Li, who stars as the foul-tempered, foul-mouthed Chinese drug lord Cai, and Dennis Zang who plays Sam, his meek and on-edge translator.
His purposeful mistranslations between his violently-inclined boss and the drug gang provide some brilliantly comedic moments.
By the nature of what happened, the inept gang also provide plenty of lighter moments and the actors all deliver.
They bring the likable charm that the real-life Ed and Heather fell for while not devolving into buffoonery.
Far North is addictive viewing and one taste will be enough to get you hooked.
The only negative I have is that its weekly release schedule leaves you waiting for your next hit.