TV Review: Tidelands is a rewarding trash-watch

The new Australian Netflix series is committed to the pursuit of visual pleasure. Mel Campbell surrenders to its siren song.
[This is archived content and may not display in the originally intended format.]

Image: Charlotte Best in Tidelands. Source: Netflix.

The first Australian-made Netflix Original series has washed into our streams like a glorious baroque pearl. If you’re not here for sexually omnivorous hippie drug dealers who are also ageless, clairvoyant mer-creatures, then click away from Tidelands now.

I am here for all this, and more.

Created by Stephen M Irwin (who scripted Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day and rebooted Wake in Fright for TV), and co-written by Irwin and Leigh McGrath, Tidelands feels like a cross between Sons of Anarchy and late-run True Blood, set on Queensland’s south coast. This supernatural crime melodrama immerses the viewer in an atmosphere of beguiling ambiguity, where fantasy and reality mingle, and it no longer even occurs to you to find any of it ridiculous.

The viewer’s way in to the show’s tangled mythology is Cal McTeer (Charlotte Best), who returns to her coastal hometown, Orphelin Bay, ten years after having been jailed as a teenager. Her hunky brother Augie (Aaron Jakubenko) greets her affectionately, but their hard-bitten mum Rosa (Caroline Brazier) is less welcoming – possibly because Cal’s reappearance threatens Rosa’s inheritance from the family’s dead patriarch, Pat (Dustin Clare, appearing in flashback). Or possibly, Cal might disapprove that Rosa’s now shagging Pat’s best mate and deckhand, Bill (Peter O’Brien).

Yep, like any fictional fishing village worth its saltwater, Orphelin Bay has many submerged secrets and undercurrents of power. Officially, Augie fishes from Pat’s old trawler, the Calliope; but he and his gang at the fishing co-op also run drugs for the half-human, half-siren Tidelanders, untroubled by sleazy police sergeant Paul Murdoch (Alex Dimitriades). When not criming, the Tidelander hotties loll about orgiastically at their secluded commune, L’Attente.

Their leader Adrielle Cuthbert (Elsa Pataky) may look preternaturally, bralessly serene in a series of silky resortwear negligees, but she’s iron-fisted, and getting reckless under pressure. Driven by a personal obsession, she’s keeping secrets from her loyal lieutenants – suave Lamar (Dalip Sondhi) and smouldering Dylan (Marco Pigossi) – and is just barely holding off a mutiny from the pugnacious Violca (Madeleine Madden).

What exactly Adrielle is searching for – and the ripple effects of her actions on matters at L’Attente and beyond – occupies one major plot thread. Cal’s journey of self-discovery is another. Should she join Augie’s business as he fights off an interloping big-city drug dealer (Jacek Koman)? What really happened to their dad? Which love interest should she choose: former schoolmate-turned rookie cop Corey (Mattias Inwood), or frequently shirtless merman Dylan? And in seeking answers to all these questions, will Cal fatally rouse the Tidelanders from their lotus-eating inertia?

Tidelands’ dreamlike pacing – full of flashbacks, visions and reveries – will frustrate viewers who need clear-cut plotlines and genre conventions. One episode is not enough to understand its appeal. It ebbs and flows from rural crime thriller to paranormal Bildungsroman, from eroticism to ultra-violence, from meditative flashback to tense, immediate action. But these same tonal shifts create the delirious sensuality that makes Tidelands such a rewarding trash-watch. It doesn’t want you to think too hard, to penetrate a puzzle box. Instead it wants to fill you up, to buoy you with sensations.

The Tidelanders use their sex appeal to manipulate the locals of Orphelin Bay: “I know they look good,” Augie warns Cal, “but that’s meat you don’t eat.” Frankly, this show is a carnal banquet. Everyone is extremely hot and thirsting after one another. As if to span the distance between what its audience sees and what its characters touch, it lingers on eyes and hands: hot stares, fierce grips and trailing caresses. The narrative pivots on acts of voyeurism, and it’s no coincidence that the Tidelanders’ favourite punishment is to gouge out people’s eyes with bare hands.

Tidelands is also preoccupied with liminality. Its namesake characters are trapped between the land and sea, condemned to endless lives of decadence and dissipation. Here, the beach operates as a metaphorical threshold between places and identities. Adrielle is often depicted wading into the sea – trailing satin dress and all. Meanwhile, Dylan wanders along the sand wearing only a pair of black leather pants, like something out of Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ video.

Image: Shirts are barely worn in Tidelands. Source: Netflix.

The melodrama could easily tip over into bathos, but the Brazilian actor Marco Pigossi and Elsa Pataky (originally from Spain) totally nail the heightened yet committed performances this show requires. Pataky never takes the easy route of making Adrielle a caricatured monster, while Pigossi’s appealing, puppydog bewilderment, along with his impressive abs, has made Dylan a breakout fan favourite.

The Australian actors aren’t quite as compelling. Aaron Jakubenko fills Augie with rough charisma, Peter O’Brien is shaggy and world-weary, Alex Dimitriades adds to his mid-career portfolio of cynical debauchery, and the usually excellent Madeleine Madden and Hunter Page-Lochard try their best in thinly written supporting roles. As Cal, Charlotte Best’s fierce eyebrows do most of her emoting… but in a series that’s so much about evanescent feelings and impressions – and vicarious identification – a blankly sassy protagonist makes sense.

In a post-broadcast era when every new TV show is under pressure to be a new high watermark in story-craft and production values, Tidelands is never going to be the gritty prestige drama that soothes Australia’s perennial cultural cringe. But it’s another category of achievement in television to commit purely to the pursuit of visual pleasure; and on this criterion Tidelands just keeps getting better over its eight salty, sun-kissed episodes. Like a siren call, it drew me in despite myself, until I realised I’d binged the whole thing.

4 stars

TidelandsNetflix, Australia, 2018, MA 15+

8 x 45 min episodes

Tidelands is from by Hoodlum Entertainment. Written by Stephen M. Irwin, Nathan Mayfield, Leigh McGrath and Tracey Robertson. Produced by Nathan Mayfield, Leigh McGrath & Tracey Robertson. Episodes directed by Toa Fraser, Daniel Nettheim, Catriona McKenzie and Emma Freeman.

Mel Campbell
About the Author
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).