Underbelly: Razor Recap – “The Worst Woman in Sydney”

Underbelly: Razor, Pilot, “The Worst Woman in Sydney”
Sunday, 8:30pm, Nine Network
Recap By Sophie Braham

People are always making out like it’s a bad thing to live under a rock. But that homeless guy in Bondi lived under a rock and he had a better view than all of the people in all of the mansions. And I’ve had a great time living under my rock. Sure I’ve never seen one single episode of Underbelly Series 1 – 4, but that’s given me plenty of time to read books and let’s be honest mainly watch other TV shows.

But nothing lasts forever. Some people stop living under rocks when they are charged with rape. And others end up having to watch Underbelly so they have something to say on the internet.

The fourth in the franchise, Underbelly: Razor, feels like the perfect Underbelly to cut my teeth on. Based on the book by Larry Writer, it’s centered around the 1920’s razor gangs of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, and the illegal alcohol, drug and prostitution trade of the era. As good as all that stuff on HBO is, there’s something genuinely special about watching a story told in surroundings you recognise. (ping: Rake, Love My Way.)

Last night’s premiere was a movie length episode (including the time spent driving to and from the cinema, finding a park, watching previews, getting yelled at for talking during the previews, wanting to act all tough but getting all flushed and apologising immediately). It begins on a bit of a gauche note, as a voiceover tells us we are about to watch “…the drama that made history, the drama that all others are judged by.” This kind of reminds me of when somebody begins an anecdote with ‘Omg, I have the funnnnnnniest story’. Look, Underbelly, why don’t you let us decide what you are?

The episode is excellently titled ‘The Worst Woman in Sydney’, and it is the two central protagonists that are in contention for the title: drug and alcohol baroness Kate Leigh and brothel madam Tilly Devine. (‘But the real worst woman in Sydney is MIRANDA Devine trololol’ – Twitter).

Danielle Cormack, the actress who plays Kate Leigh as well as a main character in Rake, functions as a good scientific control for my completely subjective opinion that Underbelly’s opening credits are completely shithouse while the credits at the start of Rake are transcendentally good. Rake’s credits present a simple, singular vision, a literal and figurative creative spark. Underbelly: Razor’s credits are thoughtlessly strung together images that look about as historically convincing as the coffee stained pages of a 4th grader’s school project. The sensation of not quite being able to lose myself in Razor’s imagery carried over to the costumes. Although the girls all looked ridiculously pretty, they could’ve just as easily belonged in a Portmans winter campaign or a misguided editorial in the Good Weekend. And the streets looked exactly like how Melbourne is trying to look now (ugh, that Cobbler place.) My favourite costuming moment of the whole episode was the draped, yellowing undergarment worn by a male client about to bed a young prostitute. It was so utterly yucky it felt immediately authentic.

The most naked woman in Sydney.

The first act of this episode was all about setting the scene. They tell us about the language used, the brash types of people, the callous and violent attitudes around sex. This is done quite economically with jazzy music, short flashes of dialogue nestled in-between expositional narration and freeze frames of a characters face with white block lettering identifying who they are and what they do. It reminded me of the way stories are told in Ads. The narration shifts would often shift in tone, sometimes it was straight to the point like “‘Bingo’ – slang for booze’, and at other times it was a bit more editorial, ‘even 90 years ago the cult of celebrity was irresistible’. In the first example I feel like I was welcomed in to the past, the second felt like a poorly masticated version of the past was being spoon-fed to me.

The very first proper scene with no background noise and font-gimmickry was a conversation between Tilly and Kate about a dog. It felt like such a welcome reprieve from the hyper PowerPoint presentation of the opening 15 minutes. Another good early scene occurs in a Melbourne alley-way between two thuggish looking men. Although the white font does eventually sneak in, it does a good job at adding a sarcastic layer to the story rather than just giving us the answer. As soon as one guy viciously beats another, he is introduced to us as ‘Norman – family guy’.

Around this time we also meet the most genuinely interesting character yet, Nellie Cameron. She’s a prostitue, the youngest and prettiest one, which we know because every character says something almost exactly to this effect. Nellie talks like a terrifying high school girl who has seized her power by being genuinely smarter and wittier than everyone else. I want to know more about her- good job Underbelly.

Old-timey Sydney.

The rest of the episode is a catalogue of gleefully graphic and violent flourishes. Festive prostitution, backyard abortions and racists slurs against Black people AND Jews. It’s all a touch laboured. Look how different stuff was back then! Heaps! They may as well have put a giant 😉 on the screen in their special white font. This show doesn’t really trust that their viewers might actually be interested in history, only that they want to be titillated by it.

The episode is so loud and so full. It was a bit like being at Jurrasic Lounge . But for one gentle moment. There’s a conversation between two characters about their guns that has as its backdrop the harbour bridge – only it is mid-construction. Nothing is said about this, it’s just for us to quietly compute and enjoy. It was the first time I felt a real sense of time and place , and the first time I felt excited to be watching a show about Sydney.

It is also worth mentioning that the actual razors-as-the-new-weapon-du-jour stuff- the slicing into human flesh and that- was great! Such a visceral form of violence, it felt loaded with significance. They also do a good job of establishing the shift in mood, pre/post razor life. I almost feel sorry for them all – merrily going about their business as though it was New Years Eve or something- and then the next day you find out that someone got their handbag stolen. The fact that the fresh material, this razor stuff, really stands out from the textbook Underbelly-esque insights about the interactions between the status quo. v. outlaws v. the cops, shows how much better the show is when it is working in service of the essence of the story itself rather than the Underbelly franchise. I sort of wish the show was its own seperate entity, a Burgerman (RIP) rather than another Grill’d.

Sophie Braham is a writer from Sydney. She tweets here.