Australian television was very different in 2017. For one thing, Seven was going all in on Australian crime drama: they’d just aired a sequel to the classic ABC docudrama Blue Murder, they’d picked up The Doctor Blake Mysteries for 2018, and tucked away in their end-of-year upfronts was the announcement of a two part crime mini-series titled Australian Gangster. It’s safe to say 2018 didn’t go according to plan. At the start of that year it was announced that Australian Gangster was on hold after it turned out the true story it was based on featured characters still in front of the courts. Almost four years later, and still trailing threats of legal action, it’s finally made it to air. Was it worth the wait?
Pasquale Barbaro (Alexander Bertrand from Les Norton) is a flashy loudmouth on the Sydney crime scene, a man not afraid to talk smack to rival crims while talking facts to cops looking for inside information. Raking in cash from drug deals, he’s looking to move up in the world, and a friend with connections to the construction industry just might be able to make him into what he craves – ‘a boss’. But first he has to avoid being killed by Lebanese gangster Little Crazy (Rahel Romahn), strike a deal with a rival crime crew, and get his kids to go to sleep after he accidentally sits them down in front of the TV to watch killer doll horror movie Child’s Play.
Writer-director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) tries to inject some energy into the real-life story of Pasquale Barbaro, but there’s a lot of dead air during the first episode’s almost two hour (with commercials) run time. Whether for legal reasons or lack of interest, we learn next to nothing about Barbaro’s actual criminal enterprises; a few drug-dealing montages aside, his shady activities largely seem to involve driving around in his ‘lambo’ doing the occasional bump of coke while he’s told secondhand that Little Crazy – who we do get to see murder someone – wants him dead.
In the final half hour, things start to get interesting. The story finally comes into focus with a rival construction figure blocking Barbaro’s path to big money. He’s got to die; he called Barbaro a clown, so Barbaro’s got to pull the trigger. Problem is, thanks to scarring his kids for life with Child’s Play, Barbaro isn’t getting any sleep. Can he keep his eyes open long enough to pull the trigger, or will the murder be handed off to a nameless generic underling to avoid defamation charges?
Barbaro’s lifestyle of tatts, flashy t-shirts, and picking up women at the gym while his wife (Louisa Mignone) looks after the kids is the real focus here. The occasional moments of culture clash comedy are a highlight, like when he threatens a middle-class couple into withdrawing a complaint against his bite-happy pre-schooler, only to discover his daughter wasn’t to blame (him snatching back the fancy wine he gave them to balance out his threats is a nice touch).
But the series never quite seems to know how it wants us to see Pasquale. Is he a comedy meathead, or a crim with real street smarts? Gangster movies thrive on characters who are both, but the writing here isn’t up to the task. The pre-publicity promises of exposing the social-media heavy life of an ‘Instagangster’, which might have given the usual crime cliches a new spin, fail to materialise in the first episode, while Steve Bastoni promises to liven things up as Barbaro’s criminal dad in episode two.
the series never quite seems to know how it wants us to see Pasquale. Is he a comedy meathead, or a crim with real street smarts? Gangster movies thrive on characters who are both, but the writing here isn’t up to the task
What really stands out watching this in 2021 is just how old-fashioned it feels. It’s hardly Australian Gangster’s fault, but Australian drama is now firmly international (so no references to ‘lebbo dogs’ and being ‘a greedy root pig’) and only interested in stories featuring something close to gender parity. This kind of trashy violent drama where men are men and women (limited here to Pasquale’s wife and girlfriend) watch on from the sidelines would be retro, except that even the first Underbelly had a stronger female lead. It’s not that this kind of story should shoe-horn in women for the sake of balance – it’s more that in 2021 if your story doesn’t naturally involve women it’s not going to be told on Australian television.
The only real upside to this slow-moving first episode is that we get to spend more time with Bertrand, who is the best thing here by a country mile. Surrounded by characters with barely one dimension, wading through a story that takes ages to get anywhere (how many times do we need to return to the half-built apartment with ‘the best views in Sydney’?), he still comes across as a bona fide star. He single-handedly makes this series watchable, lighting up every scene he’s in. It’s a shame that true crime buffs know there’s never going to be a sequel.
Two and a half stars out of five ★★☆
Australia, 2018 / 2021
Rated MA 15+
Directors: Gregor Jordan, Fadia Abboud
Starring: Alexander Bertrand, Louisa Mignone, Rahel Romahn, Steve Bastoni
Writers: Gregor Jordan, Malcolm Knox
Producers: Julie McGauran, Chris Chard, John Edwards, Dan Edwards, Gregor Jordan
Produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond for the Seven Network
Two two-hour episodes screening Sept 13 and 14 on network Seven