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Review: The Messenger returns to depot without attempting to deliver

ABC drama series The Messenger foregoes a logical narrative for the sake of mystery.

The Messenger is based on an inexplicably popular young-adult novel by The Book Thief author Markus Zusak (who’s also an executive producer). The eight-part series follows Ed Kennedy (William McKenna, Nowhere Boys), a young slacker taxi driver who becomes an accidental hero when he impulsively foils a would-be robber at the local bottle shop. Unsettlingly, though, the crim hisses, ‘You’re a dead man, Ed Kennedy.’

Soon afterwards, Ed is anonymously sent a playing card on which three addresses and times are written in oddly familiar handwriting. Showing up at these mysterious appointments propels Ed on a moral journey as he comes to believe his purpose is to intervene positively in other people’s lives. But how will Ed’s actions affect his loved ones, especially his friends Audrey (Alexandra Jensen, Talk to Me), Marv (Chris Alosio, Surviving Summer) and Ritchie (Kartanya Maynard, Deadloch)?

Read: Surviving Summer returns for season two at Netflix

A muddled tone

The Messenger often seems to deliberately withhold sense-making from the audience in pursuit of its air of mystery. The tone is both flippantly quirky and unsettlingly dark; and over the four episodes available to preview, the puzzles posed by the cards only pile up and get more elaborate, while Ed’s responses become increasingly wrongheaded.

Perhaps this is a metatextual device: is showrunner and key writer Sarah Lambert (Lambs of God; Love Child) toying with the audience just as the unknown sender of the playing cards is toying with Ed? (Readers of the Zusak novel will know it ends on a metafictional flourish.)

The Messenger is set in a world free from real stakes or consequences, but weirdly also full of buried trauma and abuse. Is this realist drama or magical realism, or even (to split the difference) Ed’s own fantasy or hallucination? The series wants it all, and consquently to be read as complex and sophisticated. But it mainly exasperated me.

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Maybe The Messenger is aiming for the heightened fairytale tone of Amélie – but that film strongly aligns its protagonist’s do-gooder actions with her bubbly personality and her attachment to her Montmartre community. Here, Ed remains an outsider who constantly seems scared.

My first tell that this story might not be happening in real life is Ed’s taxi: an early-1980s Ford station wagon with a beaded cover on the driver’s seat. While Ed, Audrey and Ritchie tease Marv, a tradie, for driving an old 1970s ‘shitbox’ because he’s so tight with a dollar, nobody says boo that Ed’s work car is 40-odd years out of date. His job comes across purely as a narrative device so he can drive around as demanded by the messages on the cards he receives.

The card motif, meanwhile, springs from the fact that every week Ed and his friends meet for “card night” at Ed’s house. This simply does not seem like an activity young people would pursue. Did Ed play cards with his now-dead alcoholic dad (played in flashback by Jack Finsterer)? We never find out. How old are Ed and his friends even meant to be? They look in their mid-twenties, but behave naïvely and impulsively. Are they precocious adolescents, or emotionally immature adults?

This isn’t nitpicking, because it enables audiences to interpret the plot. If Ed’s still a teenager, then it’s actually quite sad that he’s estranged from his bitter mum (Rebecca Massey) and lives alone in his dad’s rundown house with his dad’s loyal dog, the Doorman. (In the book, the Doorman is old and gross, but here he’s a gorgeous border collie.)

But if Ed’s well into his twenties, then his passivity is much more pathetic – particularly his longstanding crush on Audrey – and his mum’s exasperation is more understandable. And it’s also much creepier that in the course of solving one of the playing-card puzzles, he basically stalks a teenage girl, Sophie (Emmanuelle Mattana), as she goes running alone at 5:30am.

An unconvincing allegory

This brings me to the show’s message: the importance of noticing and empathising with people around you, and doing what you can to improve their lives. Ed learns everyone around him is carrying secret pain – especially his family and friends. His efforts to fix things for strangers struck me as facile and unhelpful – for instance, spending time with a lonely, senile old lady (Maggie Dence) only to vanish from her life again – and at worst, they’re actually criminal. But the show’s own moral logic rewards them, as a red pen wielded by an unseen hand ticks off each annotation.

Some stuff here doesn’t even make sense within the show’s own universe. In one of the more sinister subplots, Ed’s friend Ritchie has controlling parents who insist she’s permanently disabled and force her to take a cocktail of unwanted psychiatric medications. Yet Ritchie still thinks it’s fine to dope someone else’s drink with her sleeping pills?

Another major plotline follows the financial fallout for Audrey after she damages the coffee cart where she works, which belongs to her mum; and there turns out to be an unexpectedly emotional reason for Marv’s penny-pinching. Yet money seemingly means nothing to Ed, who has no bills or work pressure from any taxi company.

The show can’t even decide if Ed’s friends endorse or disapprove of his actions. Sometimes they’re a Scooby Gang who can help Ed deliver his messages; sometimes they mock him and brush off his explanations; sometimes they’re angry with him for reasons that just add another layer of mystery to wade through.

While the cast do their best with this flawed material, I found The Messenger very difficult to warm to. Spectatorship is another act of goodwill: we stick with a story that withholds its purpose from us because we trust it will eventually answer our questions. Who’s sending Ed these cards, and why? Do they mean well, or are they leading Ed into a fatal trap? But more pressingly: why should we care?

The Messenger is a lot like a ‘Sorry We Missed You’ card from a courier company: it didn’t deliver, even though I was at home waiting this whole time.

Rated M

The Messenger premieres on ABC TV on Sunday 14 May, with all episodes available to stream on iview

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).