Total Control, released on DVD by Sundance Now and RLJ Entertainment, is a topical and gripping Australian political drama. While the subject matter, and the politics, might be specific to Australia, the major theme of the show should be familiar to North American audiences.
The six part drama tells the story of Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman) an Aboriginal single mother from Queensland Australia, as she first achieves national prominence for standing down a shotgun wielding man and then is appointed to the national parliament as a Senator for her region.
While no stranger to politics, having served not the local council, the switch up to the federal level is quite the transition. First, most see her appointment by Prime Minister (PM) Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) as a cynical move to shore up support for her bare majority in the parliament and an example of tokenism as she’s the only Indigenous member of the ruling party and the Senate.
When the American government, rather imperiously, demands the Australians allow them to build a new military base smack in the middle of Aboriginal title land the PM calls on Irving to reach a deal with the land rights’ holders. (In Australia extended Indigenous families supposedly hold deed to swaths of land much as treaties in North America supposedly give them control over territories and reserves)
When against all odds Irving actually succeeds in bringing together the various families and they reach an agreement its considered a great triumph. However, rightwing politicians within and outside the PM’s party raise a stink about how the agreement is special treatment for the Aboriginal people, and cue the racist back lash.
Eventually, in order to hold onto her slim control of the parliament the PM is forced to cave into pressure and back out of the deal. Instead the government just goes ahead and appropriates the land, ignoring the deal Irving had reached.
Angry and betrayed, Irving plots her revenge. When she hears about the death of an Aboriginal girl in custody at the hands of guards, she begins to investigate how much her government knew about the death and what role it might have had in covering it up. She eventually discovers the truth and uses it to ensure she’s able to obtain justice for the dead child.
Total Control is a brilliantly acted, scripted, and directed piece of TV. In particular Mailman is a revelation in the lead role of Alex Irving. While she’s shown up in supporting roles in shows like Jack Irish, here she’s given the chance to show her talent off to its full. This is an incredibly nuanced and intricate performance from an extremely talented actor.
While we want to make her the “villain” of Total Control Griffiths’ portrayal of Prime Minister Anderson doesn’t allow for such an easy characterization. You can tell she started out with ideals and is out to change the old boys club of Australian politics but the compromises she’s had to make to obtain those ends have made her cynical. She wants to do the right thing but the harsh realities of governing have made that nearly impossible.
Total Control is as fine a piece of political TV as you’ll see anywhere. You may not completely understand how the Australian political system works, (but do you really understand how your own works), but that won’t detract from your enjoyment of the show.
It’s not often you get a finally crafted show of this calibre on television, but one with two great female roles and actors leading the way is even rarer. Total Control is the show you didn’t know you needed to watch – so watch it.