After launching several underwhelming Australian TV shows –from the soapy supernatural drama Tidelands to the meek and messy Heartbreak High redux – Netflix has delivered a surprise early Christmas present: this very cunning, funny and bingeable 10-part comedy series based in a small coastal Queensland town. Creator Paddy Macrae uses a Welcome to Woop Woop-esque trajectory to plonk an on-the-run Chicago criminal way, way, way down under, into the backwater community of Clump, a technologically retrograde (to say the least) place situated on the edge of existence, with weird locals and an internet connection accessed by a desktop computer rolled on to the beach.
Small Aussie towns have been used as comedic settings many times before, including in the recent TV series Rosehaven and films such as Rams, Strange Bedfellows and Dimboola. But Irreverent, a US/Australia co-production, leans towards a more American sentiment with its peppy pacing and precisely intersecting plotlines offsetting the laidback setting and supporting cast.
US actor Colin Donnell is very entertaining as the smug, resourceful but ever-struggling protagonist Paulo, a “mafia negotiator” with the gift of the gab who, in the first episode, botches a heist and accidentally kills a crime boss’s son, rendering him a dead man walking. And so, off he trots to Australia, hoping to start afresh with over one million big ones hidden in his luggage.
Like Steve Martin from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Paulo is miffed to discover himself sitting next to his very own John Candy: PJ Byrne as the annoyingly extroverted Reverend Mackenzie, who is on his way to Clump to take over as the town’s priest. Paulo is even more annoyed to discover they are both staying at the same Brisbane hotel. Over a couple of whiskies at the bar, the miscreant delivers his unwanted companion a hard-hitting peptalk, assuring Mackenzie – who is experiencing a spiritual crisis after his wife left him – that there is no higher power, imploring him to “stop looking for God to give you something and go take it for yourself”.
Paulo is mortified when he discovers the reverend has taken his advice seriously, swiping his loot and living it up with cocktails and Zumba classes. In return, Paulo steals the reverend’s identity, dons his cassock and struts out of the hotel looking like Nicolas Cage from the start of Face/Off. When he arrives in Clump, hoping to find clues to help track down Mackenzie, the narrative really takes off, as does the comedy. In one absurd twist, Paulo turns to Mackenzie for help maintaining the ruse; not wanting his reputation sullied, the reverend gives him advice over the phone on how to manage sermons, weddings and funerals.
The series was co-directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and Lucy Gaffy. Teplitzky’s 2003 film Gettin‘ Square features one of the funniest criminal characters in Australian film history – the rough-as-guts goon Johnny “Spit” Spitieri, played by an irrepressibly hilarious David Wenham. In Irreverent, it’s more a matter of laughing with rather than at the people of Clump – a ragtag ensemble including mayor and church enthusiast Peter (Wayne Blair); police officer Piper (Kylie Bracknell); the lead of the chop-chip smuggling operation, Agnes (Susie Porter); and young petty criminals Cameron (Ed Oxenbould) and Daisy (Tegan Stimson). It is Daisy who quickly realises that the faux rev isn’t who he says he is. She teams up with Paulo to help run a criminal operation involving the smuggling of illegal tobacco (or “chop-chop”), while he continues to pretend to be a somewhat unorthodox man of the cloth.
Donnell portrays Paulo with a very funny fusion of bravado and bewilderment; a good criminal who must quickly learn how to be a good (fake) priest. Blair is very effective as the churchy know-it-all, Oxenbould is infuriatingly good as a decent-hearted idiot, and Stimson has very much established herself – in this and SBS’s short-form drama The Tailings – as a talent to watch.
The cast find a middle ground between playing it straight and winking at the audience, delivering just enough to let you know they’re in on the joke without being self-conscious or hammy. A few of the plot twists, particularly in the second half of the season (this review encompasses all 10 episodes), feel a little rushed and underprepared. There were a couple of times I felt something needed more explaining – but mostly, I found Irreverent fabulously entertaining.