It's the near future, and for some unexplained reason, a new species of people known as Hairies (because they're hairy) have emerged into the public eye after being hidden for tens of thousands of years. They look like the Geico cavemen, and although they're looked down upon as subhuman, they have superhuman strength and agility. Which is, of course, why they're confined to the Zone (think District 9). Much of this will have more resonance to people familiar with Australia's horrible treatment of Aboriginals, which the Hairies are obviously meant to represent, and I appreciated that even though the major racist oppression metaphor takes center stage, the show acknowledges that non-metaphorical, non-sci-fi racism still exists for the Aboriginal characters.
Set against this dystopian backdrop, Cleverman tells a lot of stories about a lot of characters. A Hairy family captured and separated, each enduring their own form of oppression. A Hairy rights activist. His wife. His daughter. His mother. His brother, a pub owner. That guy's best friend. His girlfriend. A media mogul. His wife, a doctor who works in the Zone. And that's just the main cast. I think. The standout characters are media mogul Slade, a slippery bastard who has his fingers in a lot of pies; Hairy rights activist Waaru, who has a lot of shit going on, not the least of which is his angst over not being chosen to be Cleverman; and pub owner Koen, reluctant Aboriginal superhero with the power to connect to the Dreaming.
So Koen is the titular Cleverman, a figure drawn from Aboriginal mythology. Creator Ryan Griffen named him after his son because he thought his son should have a superhero who looked like him, which is an admirable cause and I fully support it. I do find it curious that he then made this character such an asshole. Koen is not very likable...at all. He spends the majority of the season not wanting to accept his powers, which is a superhero trope except they're usually not such dicks about it. While this does give him room for an arc, it's a rough ride, but Hunter Page-Lochard's performance makes the character a complex, flawed person rather than an unsympathetic, one-dimensional jerk. Performances are great all across the board, actually, and this makes most characters pretty likable and interesting, even if we don't know much about them.
Cleverman is definitely blazing new territory in its commitment to authentically telling Aboriginal stories, which I've never seen before. But this first season is kiiiiiiiind of a mess. It doesn't feel boring and every episode ends pretty dramatically, whetting my appetite for the next one, and it definitely builds to a finale. But there is just too much. It crams so many stories into six episodes that nearly every one feels underserved. For instance, in the finale there's what appears to be an emotional scene between two characters that did not land because we had barely seen the relationship between these two characters. In addition, much of the mythology is unexplained, which makes the relevance of some subplots unclear. There's connective tissue missing in places.
The first season finale ends on an upswing, and I hope for more confident, cohesive storytelling in the second season. It's high time for more stories like this.