Watch List: ‘The Straits,’ an Australian Series at Hulu.com

December 16th, 2012

Gang boss vexed by dysfunctional family. Turncoat lieutenant killed on boss’s fishing boat. Boss in a coma. Rival gang member chased on foot through the woods.

No, it’s not “The Sopranos.” But the people behind “The Straits” — an Australian television series receiving its American premiere online at Hulu.com beginning on Saturday — are clearly great admirers of that HBO Mafia tale and its blend of brutality, slapstick comedy and domestic drama.

They’ve also had a peek at “The Godfather”: The three sons of the gangster patriarch Harry Montebello are a hothead like Sonny, a choirboy like Michael and an addict sort of like Fredo. And for TV watchers of a certain vintage, “The Straits,” with its speedboats cleaving turquoise waters and crocodiles disposing of inconvenient corpses, may also call to mind “Miami Vice.”

This is not to say that the Australian show is as good as its models — compared with “The Sopranos,” it’s a Yellow Tail shiraz up against a top-flight Brunello. This is especially true with regard to the highly varied performances, which range from excellent to just barely competent, a common situation in Australian TV.

But the 10-episode series has a solid story, plenty of forward momentum and, for the American viewer, an unfamiliar setting that supplies guilt-free exoticism. The Montebello clan prospers by running drugs from Papua New Guinea to the northern tip of Australia across the shallow, shipwreck-dotted Torres Strait, and success requires that both family and business straddle two cultures, island tribal and mainland white.

(That the Montebello children are all adopted amplifies the show’s natural multiculturalism: the extended family’s ethnic makeup encompasses Pacific Islander, Eurasian, Middle Eastern and white. In other ways, though, the show’s racial assumptions mirror those of American prime time; a Sri Lankan character is used almost entirely for the comic effect of his accent and gait.)

“The Straits” also has a trump card in the fine British actor Brian Cox. He’s believably tender and ferocious as Harry, a man whose ruthlessness is imperfectly hidden by his fatherly mien and weary authority. Mr. Cox is matched in charisma by the New Zealand actress Rena Owen (“Once Were Warriors”) as Harry’s fierce islander wife, Kitty, though Ms. Owen tends to lay on the Lady Macbeth mannerisms a bit thickly.

Developed by Louis Nowra from a concept by the actor Aaron Fa’aoso, who plays the eldest Montebello son, “The Straits” mixes gangster film and culture clash formulas in interesting ways and occasionally provides some slyly humorous dialogue. (When Kitty brags about her handicapped-parking sticker, her middle son’s wife mutters, “I didn’t know being a cow to your daughter-in-law was a registered disability.”)

What might interest American viewers the most, though, is the primer it offers in the folkways and slang of a remote region. Within a few episodes you’ll be able to throw around PNG (Papua New Guinea) and FNQ (Far North Queensland), discuss the number of fingers that should be cut off to honor a family member’s death and describe a particularly aggressive action as “going tropical.” Those with a soft spot for “The Thorn Birds” or “Against All Odds” will want to note that Episodes 4 through 6 were directed by the star of those productions, Rachel Ward.

“The Straits” joins other Australian series available at Hulu, which is quietly offering what seems to me to be the most varied selection of international TV that Americans have ever had access to: shows from Britain, Scandinavia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Latin America, Israel and other lands, all in one place. If that degree of choice seems paralyzing, “The Straits” has one last advantage: It was canceled after one season, so your commitment is no more than 10 episodes long.

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