Population 11, Stan review: a comedy-mystery winner

Stan's new 12-part, WA-shot series is beautifully paced and extremely bingeable.

Andy Pruden (Ben Feldman) is a mild-mannered guy from Cincinnati searching for his estranged father Hugo (Darren Gilshenan) in Bidgeegud, a tiny outback town of only 12 residents. But when he gets there, Hugo has gone missing, leaving only a kooky videotape alleging he’s been abducted by aliens.

After Andy inevitably crashes his car while swerving to avoid a kangaroo, he flags down Cassie (Perry Mooney, Gold Diggers), a young motorist who’s just passing through. She seems relatively normal compared to Bidgeegud’s handful of residents, whose behaviour Andy finds bizarre and evasive.

Read: Gold Diggers review: ABC comedy glisters but rarely shines

But Cassie is also suspiciously keen to investigate the mystery of Hugo’s disappearance. Is she just curious, keen on Andy, reluctant to move back home with her mum … or hiding something else?

In any case, why does Andy really want to reconnect with his dad? Could it have to do with the increasingly frantic phone calls from Dom (Christopher Kirby), an associate from back home with whom Andy seems to be entangled in some kind of financial predicament?

Smalltown comedy-mystery

I have to respect the way Stan’s fun new series Population: 11 is actually titled after one of the biggest clichés in its subgenre: the Defaced Smalltown Welcome Sign. It’s loosely based on the real-life 2017 disappearance of Paddy Moriarty and his dog Kellie from a remote NT town – which became the true-crime podcast Lost in Larrimah, then the Netflix true-crime documentary Last Stop Larrimah.

Comedy writer Phil Lloyd (The Moodys, Review with Myles Barlow) clearly saw the funny side of this scenario. Filmed in Derby, three hours north of Broome, Population: 11 is Stan’s second co-production with Lionsgate, following Prosper.

It’s the kind of show Stan is investing heavily in: a fish-out-of-water tale that plunks a flustered international star in an Australian setting with a cast of seasoned local actors, and lets them cook.

Feldman isn’t as big a drawcard as, say, Jamie Dornan; he’s best known for the big-box workplace sitcom Superstore, and for roles in Silicon Valley and Mad Men. But he’s very appealing as Andy, a wide-eyed everyman foiled by zaniness at every turn.

Australian grotesque

Rather than satirising the crime procedural like Deadloch, Lloyd and his co-writers Michael Bond, Steve Toltz, Sarinah Masukor, Julia Moriarty and Zoe Pepper have made a sitcom.

Read: Deadloch review: McCartney and McLennan look to kill it

Comedy-mysteries are streaming everywhere, from Only Murders in the Building on Disney+ to Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, but Population: 11 reminded me most of Search Party – a situationally driven mystery whose comedy emerges from the banter between the out-of-their-depth investigators.

Lloyd and his team also seem inspired by the ‘Australian grotesque’ storytelling tradition, because there’s something quite Welcome to Woop Woop about this show. The tone is set before Andy’s even got into town, when he’s ‘breath-tested’ by lascivious local police sergeant Geraldine Walters (Katrina Milosevic).

But rather than lampooning rural Australians as ocker caricatures, Population: 11 seems primarily interested in roasting the Yanks. Indeed, it leans in to stereotypes about outback serial killers and deadly fauna – Andy survives a kangaroo, a dingo, a venomous snake and a saltwater crocodile in just the first few episodes.

Feldman’s game performance sells a kind of humour that feels like a game of chicken between Andy and Bidgeegud’s outlandish residents. I wonder how it’ll be received by international audiences, who have the disadvantage of unfamiliarity with Emily Taheny’s mercilessly straight-faced characters on Mad as Hell (RIP), or Stephen Curry’s career progression from The Castle to Hounds of Love.

Here, Taheny plays Audrey, proprietor of the local Chinese restaurant/pie shop, for whom local boofhead Leon (Rick Donald) has been holding a torch you could warm pies on. No pie joke is left unbaked – but I particularly enjoyed the way Audrey offers someone a chicken pie on learning they’re vegetarian.

Noel (Stephen Curry), meanwhile, is the local postmaster-general, former exotic zookeeper and would-be leader of a breakaway microstate that he plots out by making elaborate dioramas of the town. He’s one of the show’s biggest weirdos, and Curry is in full dead-dingo’s-donger mode here:

‘You watch too many movies,’ Andy sniffs.

‘I’ve never seen a movie,’ Noel deadpans. ‘I watch people.’

Both Curry and Taheny were also in last year’s far less successful smalltown comedy-mystery Bay of Fires. They seem much more at home here, where the writing gives their performances somewhere to go.

Read: Bay of Fires on ABC review: excruciating attempts at comedy

Other characters I found amusing are local priest Jimmy James (Tony Briggs), whose confessional is a curtained-off corner of the pub; preening prettyboy Gareth (Chai Hansen, The Newsreader); and married couple Maureen and Trevor (Pippa Grandison and Steve Le Marquand).

What about the mystery?

Setting up a scenario where anything wacky can happen keeps Population: 11’s audiences guessing about where its mystery will lead. As the vaguely Germanic old-timer Cedric (William Zappa) tells Andy, Bidgeegud is the kind of town people where wash up while fleeing problems elsewhere. Everyone here is unreliable and driven by obscure motives – including Andy himself.

Each episode is full of small, tension-building moments that are no less effective for being familiar thriller and horror tropes. A menacingly idling vehicle hides behind the glare of its headlights. A cigarette butt on a verandah matches the one Andy finds at the spot where someone knocked him out with a shovel … only this one is still smouldering. A seemingly jovial character quietly packs a hunting knife.

Rather than pulling against each other, the comedy and the mystery push the show forward. It doesn’t artificially withhold information from both protagonist and the viewer, then spring it as an unearned twist. Instead, Andy and Cassie keep exploring and discovering, and we also find things out before they do. Eventually I found myself drawn into the narrative, watching purely to see what would happen next.

It helps that the show is beautifully paced and very bingeable. Each episode is only half an hour long and always ends on a key revelation; the next episode picks straight up afterwards. Luckily, Stan is releasing all episodes at once – this is definitely a show you could tear through over a weekend.

Population: 11 is streaming on Stan now.


4 out of 5 stars


Ben Feldman, Perry Mooney, Stephen Curry, Chai Hansen, Tony Briggs


Trent O’Donnell

Format: TV Series

Country: Australia

Release: 14 March 2024

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).