Chances are if you watch Australian television then you’re probably familiar with actress, Deborah Mailman (and if you don’t watch Australian television, Mailman’s IMDb would be a great place to start). Anytime her name is attached to a project it’s a pretty good sign that you’re in the right place, and even on the rare occasion one of her shows hasn’t worked (here’s looking at you, The Secret Life of Us), she’s always been the one reason to try and stick it out.
The first show I saw Mailman in was Jack Irish but while she’s been a series regular before on shows like Offspring, Total Control gives Mailman the leading role she deserves and it’s about time. Like an Australian Borgen, Mailman’s Alex never aspired to be a senator. Her gig was local politics, but when a shooting sends a wave of media attention her way, it also brings the prime minister (Brothers & Sisters’ Rachel Griffiths) to her door. There’s a senate seat open and the prime minister wants her to take it, but does it matter why she chose Alex for the job?
Some are calling it a publicity stunt. Alex’s brother (Mystery Road’s Rob Collins) thinks the government wants a “pet Aborigine,” but Alex wants to make a difference. At the same time, she’s still experiencing PTSD from the shooting. While there have been other shows about politics before, Total Control brings issues effecting Aboriginal Australians to the forefront while also acknowledging the challenges inherent in trying to bring about systemic change.
Not everything in the first episode works. The scene where Alex and her chief advisor (Poldark’s Harry Richardson) argue over speeches right before Alex is meant to give her speech seemed especially unorthodox, not because it wouldn’t have been a decision that came down to the wire but because it’s a conversation that should’ve started much earlier. Maybe it’s unfair to compare a show about Australian politics with a show about American politics, but I don’t think The West Wing would’ve let that slide.
The other thing that’s troubling about this episode is Alex’s lack of allies. While a lot depends on how the rest of the season plays out, the fact that there aren’t even any potential allies yet is concerning. It may be the underdog’s lot in life to fight against the odds, but at least there’s usually a secretary that’s supportive. Alex’s secretary (Wentworth’s Celia Ireland) is devoted to the senator that came before her. She doesn’t have Alex’s back.
While this could all be a storytelling tactic, and the show is really piling it on thick so Alex can persevere in the end (which isn’t to say these challenges are exaggerated, because they’re not), Alex needs allies if she wants to make her time as senator matter. Otherwise, any attempts she makes at change will be blocked. As for the prime minister, while the trailer for this series suggests that her goodwill towards Alex doesn’t last, she’s mostly a cypher in this episode.
New episodes of Total Control stream Thursdays on Sundance Now.