In the third season of the Underbelly crime series, the franchise's cinematic language is familiar: the menacing music, the slo-mo walking by gangsters, the speeding up and slowing down, the matter-of-fact voiceover, the sudden violence, the oddball flashes of humour.

In this outing of the pseudo-documentary crime drama, the star of the show is not a gangster but a road - King's Cross, the "Golden Mile" of vice, captured during the late-1980s and 1990s leading up to the Wood Commission into police corruption. This era is evocatively drawn with Dragon songs, drag queens and the dark side of the Australian suburban dream.

"Whatever your poison or perversion, it was for sale on the Golden Mile. This was the vice capital of Sydney. No, make that the vice capital of Australia," intones the voiceover darkly.

In Underbelly: The Golden Mile, the narrative centres around testosterone-pumping wannabe gangster John Ibrahim and his bunch of hot-headed Lebanese thugs. Their reputation for violence comes in handy when extorting protection money on behalf of kingpin crims George Freeman and Lennie McPherson.

We don't get much of a sense of this duo's brutality in the first episode, aside from dropping cigarette ash on John's hand when he attempts a handshake. They are simply raspy-voiced, almost comic "baddies".

The earlier two Underbellies could have been accused of glorifying criminals, but it is very clear who the villains are here: bent coppers.

In the first episode, the crooked dicks are almost cartoonish in their corruption and venality, although hopefully in future episodes their characters' nuances will be revealed with some of Underbelly's trademark subtlety and ambiguity. Surely no policeman could be that easily or gratuitously bought? Every man may have his line in the sand, but when it comes to kickbacks, these coppers don't even seem to bother drawing it.

"On the Golden Mile morality was negotiable. One man's sin was another man's salvation," continues the voiceover. The crims are depicted possessing a code of honour among thieves and their own wonky kind of order.

"The Golden Mile was a law unto itself but its denizens understood the need for order. When order breaks down violence breaks out, punters get scared off and money dries up. That cannot be tolerated."

We can tell Ibrahim is heading for some disorder, but the narrative of the first episode is not as strong as the first two Underbellies, although odd moments of comedy are a relief.

Underbelly is a fine piece of television and I wish we could do something similar here. Surely we have suitable brutal crime stories, we just need someone to collect them. Perhaps Pam Corkery's work on New Zealand gangs could produce our own version. She would know what really matters is the vividness of the characters. The problem with The Golden Mile is that no matter how mean the street, without people it's just a grimy bit of asphalt.

* Underbelly: The Golden Mile debuts on TV3, tonight at 8.30pm.