The Circuit: articles

The Circuit, round two

FEW television shows have appealed to the almost insatiable consumer fascination for legal theatre with such exoticism as The Circuit, SBS's wrenching outback courtroom drama series. The show, starring Aaron Pedersen as Aboriginal legal service lawyer Drew Ellis and Gary Sweet as magistrate Peter Lockhart, resumes this week after a lapse of almost two years.

The new series returns to the frontier towns of far north Western Australia, where windows are remorselessly latticed against the sun and frequent cyclones and the featureless spinifex landscape and red roads stretch away to infinity.

With great originality, The Circuit spins some of the conventions of TV courtroom dramas and cop shows and wraps them in a culturally complex family saga, played out against its fascinating outback setting.

The series starts from an idea that's almost traditional in the crime genre, that of the hero's ambiguous relationship to the law. Like so many characters in popular fiction, Lockhart and Ellis, in their very different ways, act out the myth that society and the organised processes of law, however necessary, are incapable of bringing about true justice.

The second series wasn't commissioned until the first had successfully been put to air by the financially beleaguered SBS. And it just wasn't possible, even for producers as resourceful as The Circuit's Ross Hutcheon and Colin South, to shoot more than six episodes at a time because of the series' location in the Kimberley. There, for half the year, the weather is hot, humid and wet, sometimes violent, and unpredictable.

"We always felt we had a second series in us, especially after all the critical acclaim the show received, but it was an effort to ramp up after a break," says Kelly Lefever, the series' co-creator with Hutcheon, who wrangles the show's writers. "It was very difficult to do because there were so many expectations; so many stories had been left without being resolved."

The first series began with Ellis, the ambitious and happily assimilated Aboriginal city lawyer, becoming the latest newcomer to join the chaotic, constantly compelling world of the Kimberley Circuit Court presided over by Lockhart.

His appointment at first seemed a worthy addition to the CV of a Canberra-bound legal eagle.

But he had little idea when he left his accomplished blonde wife (Kirsty Hillhouse) in Perth how demanding the world of cattle-duffers, drug-dealers, petrol-sniffers, wife-bashers, street-drinkers and tribal payback would prove to be.

In the first series, the charming, affable Ellis was forced to confront not only the political and personal disempowerment of remote Australia's indigenous people but his own neglected blackness.

Pedersen handled this brilliantly, and again in the new episodes his performance shows just how far local TV has come in its portrayal of indigenous Australians.

By the end of the first series, Ellis had turned from "coconut" - a particularly scathing Aboriginal insult meaning someone who is black on the outside but at heart has sold out their culture and thinks and acts like a white man - into a confident black man.

But his sense of belonging has come at a cost and as the new series starts, after a short time-jump of several months, it's obvious that fitting into his Aboriginal family is not going to be easy and possibly heartbreaking.

"Maybe I built it up too much," he says to his friend Bella (Tammy Clarkson), the court clerk, as their friendship is on the cusp of changing into something more intense. "I wanted movie moments, people crying and hugging me." Instead, he is shouted at by newly discovered family members and confronted so directly with truths about a father he hardly knew that he starts to doubt himself. Not much else has changed.

The travelling circuit court continues to involve magistrate Lockhart and his entourage of officials embarking from Broome on regular five-day, 2000km round trips to dispense justice to the Aboriginal communities of the far north.

Lockhart (played with great authority by Sweet, in one of his best performances) is still able to embrace the finer things with the Broome aristocracy but remains unable to get down in the red Kimberley dirt. Although in this first episode, so well directed by Steve Jodrell, he seems more dismayed than before by the social conditions he encounters and is able to embrace blackfella humour with greater empathy.

All the established characters seem increasingly edgy and emotionally drained as we return to their stories, especially Kelton Pell's charismatic court liaison officer Sam Wellen, now coping with a wayward son. And the wonderful tired-eyed Marta Kaczmarek is even more bedraggled as heavy-smoking legal aid lawyer Ellie Zdybicka, her fury at the way some Aboriginal men treat their women starting to unhinge her.

Harried and often dismayed in their makeshift chambers, Zdybicka and her colleagues still race through as many cases as possible in the world's largest jurisdiction. They recite the same lines, expecting the same results, just to keep the conveyer-belt process moving along in the heat. Plea deals are encouraged and defendants attempting to slow the process are usually given harsher sentences as a deterrent to others. The Circuit's stories juxtapose the private against the public authority that steps in with prosecution, conviction and punishment. And the lawmakers have to do it all on the run as the audience travels with Lockhart into the dusty banality and absurdity of outback justice. "We think of it as a courtroom show," says Lefever. "In reality, though, what we're trying to do is open people's eyes to issues largely unknown in Australia."

The series carries with it a terrible sense of disappointment and few moments of hope. The system has been broken for a long time and it will be longer before it is fixed, regardless of the storm that has descended over Aboriginal Australia in real life since the series was first broadcast.

Former prime minister John Howard's intervention occurred just before the first series of The Circuit went to air in 2007. It was a more bizarre concoction of altruism, melodrama, farce and political adventure than any TV producer would have attempted. "People expected us to thematically tie in with the intervention, as if the things it revealed were new, but they have been happening for decades," Lefever says. "The sensationalism of the intervention didn't fit with the approach of The Circuit."

So justice in The Circuit still travels in a layer of fine red dust as the series, elegiacally at times, explores the hardship and issues faced by remote indigenous people. In exposing the underbelly of the outback legal system, The Circuit never resorts to crude polemic: it is possibly more distressing because of this grim-jawed objectivity.

This series is simply great, great TV.

By Graeme Blundell
The Australian
November 28, 2009