Television loves a family business. Succession might be today’s headline-grabbing example, but you don’t have to look back far to dig up a steady seam of series where business is definitely way too personal (and if you do want to look far back, there’s always King Lear).
So the big hook with Stan’s new eight-part series Prosper isn’t that it’s a look at a dynasty that might be crumbling before the next generation can even take the reins. It’s that the dynasty bears more than a passing resemblance to Australia’s own controversial Hillsong church, the religious powerhouse that’s had troubles of its own in recent years.
Cal Quinn (Richard Roxburgh), head of the evangelical U Star church, is just back from the US with a big surprise for his family. No, not the giant TV screen he’s had installed on stage at their main hall: they’re joining forces with an American church to open up their first branch in LA. And as he’s just announced it live to the world (using that jumbo screen), everyone else is left playing catch up.
For wife Abi (Rebecca Gibney), it’s just one more thing to worry about as she puts together the big party for their wedding anniversary. Elder son Dion (Ewen Leslie) and wife Taz (Ming Zhu Hii) are the corporate side of the family, and they’re on board with anything that expands their reach.
On the musical side, bigger audiences are a big plus for younger sister Issy (Hayley McCarthy) and her husband Benji (Jordi Webber). As for black sheep Jed (Jacob Collins-Levy), he was cast out three years ago, but his poverty-focused street church shows he’s stayed in the family business … only without the money or the power his family could provide.
Abi uses the big party (plus a fancy suit) to lure a wary Jed back into the fold, and if a show of family unity makes them look good to the Americans that’s an added bonus. While Dion and Issy are battling to be the ones to baptise a touring US DJ who’s struggling with his faith (and his drug habit), it doesn’t really matter who wins as U Star church will get all the glory either way. What could possibly go wrong for the megachurch?
Oh right, Cal’s a former drug addict whose faith is on shaky ground, and the increasingly erratic parishioner (Brigid Zengeni) that he’s chosen to give personal guidance to is the kind of woman who just leaves drugs lying around her hotel room. She’s on a downward spiral, and while Cal eventually realises – after some prodding from family consigliere Eli (Jacek Koman) – that he’s got to cut her loose, has he figured that out too late?
The first episode mostly sticks to the big halls and fancy homes of the church elite; it’s more interested in Cal hobnobbing with an overly religious (and explicitly non-Labor) politician as he tries to block a bill that would tax the church’s earnings than it is at showing how the church makes its money. A later subplot involving Juno (Andrea Solonge), a young woman who finds herself drawn into the church, brings the less lofty side of things more into the spotlight.
The family’s bone-deep conflicts are quickly but effectively sketched. Jed is clearly the future despite Dion’s firm dislike (he calls his brother ‘a trustfund Jesus impersonator’) and some looming trouble with his street church. Abi and Eli are the ones who get things done, which largely involves covering up Cal’s troubles.
Benji wants to move beyond being Issy’s backing band, while Dion’s plans to step up might be thwarted by a fatal flaw within himself (okay, he finds himself attracted to another man). And the Quinn’s youngest son Moses (Alexander D’Souza) is old enough to start getting in some trouble of his own.
There’s plenty of plot to reel audiences in, and the scheming only increases as the series goes on (powered in part by an incriminating video that just won’t go away). What spices this bubbling stew of blackmail and betrayal up a notch is Cal, powered by Roxburgh’s slippery performance.
He’s the heart of the church, an increasingly erratic true believer that a cast of cynics and hustlers have grafted themselves onto. Without him, they’re nothing; he’s the one the congregation connects with. Which is a problem, because he’s increasingly showing signs of heading off the rails.
Roxburgh is always completely convincing as a charming salesman who’s bought his own product. His public persona is of a man completely convinced he’s doing good, and that conviction convinces those around him. Which is why the rest of the Quinn family are increasingly nervous when he starts to show signs of doubt (or worse, believing a little too much); they couldn’t get where they are without him, and they like where they are too much to follow him anywhere else.
After all, without Cal’s high-powered preaching telling his congregation they deserve to have more than they deserve, his children wouldn’t have car parks to fight over.
Prosper premieres on Stan on 18 January.