Cleverman is an gripping and innovative new show out of Australia, which is propelled by sharp story telling and stellar performances. It’s a sci-fi take on some seriously ancient stories from Aboriginal cultures, something that most viewers outside of Australia are not at all familiar with.
One of the remarkable and exciting things about Cleverman is its authenticity. It’s being created by Aboriginal writers and creators, and doesn’t use the concepts cheaply. Creator Ryan Griffen travelled widely to gather stories as well as permission to use them from elders, and his respect and dedication is apparent whenever he talks about it. He hopes the show will be one way that younger generations connect to the past.
All that’s not to say that Cleverman is impenetrable for a US audience. It’s actually painfully universal in its portrayal of violence, xenophobia, and misogyny. But if you want to get a deeper appreciation, here’s a rundown.
As Waruu sharply argues in episode 3, it’s “The Dreaming, present tense.” The Dreaming is the collective and continuous history and mythology of the Aboriginal people, described by Indigenous Australia as “infinite and links the past with the present to determine the future. It is the natural world, especially the land or county to which a person belongs, which provides the link between the people and The Dreaming.” The stories that make up the Dreaming pass cultural knowledge, history, morals and values from generation. Given that Australian Aboriginals have the oldest continuous cultures in the world and include many language groups, it is an incredibly rich, expansive, and living tradition.
Stories and characters are adapted from The Dreaming to create the world of Cleverman. Many of the human characters are themselves Aboriginal, thus The Dreaming informs their lives and relationships. One prominent story that is brought up to characterize Waruu and his relationship with Koen is the story of the Sun and the Moon, a parable which explains the moon as being jealous of the sun. Griffen also recently revealed (for the uninitiated) the story behind Waruu’s name, which means Crow.
Griffen describes the Cleverman as “the Pope of the Dreamtime.” He has also said that this character is very adapted for the series; casting the Cleverman through the trope of a superhero is what makes it accessible and able to be shared. Griffen has also explained that in Indigenous culture, the Cleverman is not something that is freely talked about, but rather “shrouded in a lot of protocol.”
The show portrays the Cleverman as having the power to see the past and future and heal himself, although so far Koen has likely only scratched the surface of his powers. The role of Cleverman is passed on along with a club, and the Cleverman is marked by his one blue eye.
The Hairyman or Hairypeople exist in variation in many different language groups as a sort of boogeyman figure. Director Leah Purcell explained that in her childhood, the Hairypeople were hardy mountain dwellers, the descendants of people who broke tribal laws and were cast out. Common descriptions portray these people as having superhuman strength and speed and thick body hair.
The Hairies presented in Cleverman represent a conglomeration of these different figures. They are portrayed as being a separate species from humans, which had existed undetected until very recently, although their treatment by humans is quite allegorical of the historical treatment of Indigenous people by colonizers. In the show, they speak Gumbaynggir, a language from New South Wales.
The monster on the loose in Cleverman is a Namorrodor. So far we’ve only seen its scuttling claws move threateningly just on the edge of the screen, but tradition describes it as a “flying serpent, and a man-eater.” It’s appearance is marked by a meteor, as we see in episode 1 when Uncle Jimmy seems to summon it. In the show, it’s said that the Namorrodor only shows up “when things are out of balance”, although common variations of the story tend to warn children against staying out past their bedtimes. The Namorrodor typically eats the heart of its victim, as we see it do in Cleverman.
The may yet be more monsters and morals to come from Cleverman. Watch it Wednesdays at 10pm on SundanceTV.