Saturday, June 13, 2015

Summer Travel Through TV: The Straits 1.01: "The Proposition"

“Now, in future, no gunplay on PNG. You pull a gun on someone, it means you lost an argument."

For our second summer TV travel destination (which I’m trying to figure out a way to visit in real life next year), we’ll be visiting tropical Cairns, Australia. “The Straits” was a short-lived Australian show that followed the lives of the Montebello family, a crime family in Far North Queensland. Family patriarch Harry is trying to decide which of his three sons (he has already decided his daughter will be the business manager) will take over his drug smuggling business when he eventually steps down. “The Straits” is a fun, soapy drama that is basically the Australian version of “Empire,” in the level of soapiness and in the general concept of a family patriarch trying to decide which of his sons will succeed him. What I especially like about “The Straits” is the location. Before watching the show, I had never really given a thought to Far North Queensland. It is a completely different culture than anything you would see on American television. Every time the characters talk about “going tropo” or visiting “PNG” (Papua New Guinea is so close the characters can arrive there via a several hour dinghy ride), I am reminded that I am seeing a completely different part of the world from what I am familiar with.

Let’s start our journey with a brief introduction to the Montebello family. Like I already mentioned, Harry Montebello (Brian Cox) is the family patriarch. He prefers to solve conflicts related to the family smuggling business with negotiation, but he can plan a violent spectacle if necessary. His wife, Kitty (Rena Owen), is from Zey Island in the Torres Straits, and together they adopted four children. Noel (Aaron Fa’aoso), a hothead who doesn’t really know when to keep his mouth shut, is the oldest. He and his wife Toni are estranged when the series begins, and they have two children. Marou (Jimi Bani), the middle son, seems to be more pacifist than his brothers. He has a rather manipulative wife named Lola. Gary, the youngest son, has a bad habit of using his own product. Finally, sister Sissi is the most responsible of the Montebello kids. She has a business degree, and she runs her own real estate business. It’s not enough for Kitty, though, who really wants to marry Sissi off to a Zey Island boy. She also has a habit of spying on her parents through their compound’s security cameras.

“The Proposition” really does a nice job of setting up the big conflicts that will play out through the next nine episodes. The very first action sequence is of a drug deal going very bad. Noel and Marou are trying to exchange some rifles for product on a beach in PNG. When Noel breaks out a scale to weigh the bags of product, the PNG guys are not happy. Clearly they’ve been trying to short the Montebellos. Things get heated, and it only gets worse when Noel fires of his gun. Sidekick Eddie, who has been watching from the dinghy, provides cover fire as Noel and Marou grab the product and run back to shore. Poor Eddie gets an arrow in the side of his mouth for his trouble. The guys lose a little of the product, but the fact that they escaped with their lives and most of the product is pretty much a miracle.

The PNG incident makes Harry start to really consider the future of the family business. He’s proud of his kids, but he realizes that they all have issues which make them not yet ready to take over. Noel is too quick to violence, Marou is too pacifist, and Gary is an addict. At a family dinner, he announces that he is going to be changing up the company structure a bit to try and determine which son will be the successor. Gary is going to go to Zey Island and try to build up more connections there (Kitty’s Torres Strait connections are vital to the family business). Marou and Noel are going to focus on the legit businesses (like an exotic animal parc) the Montebellos use to launder their drug smuggling money. Sissy is going to step down from the real estate business and start studing under family accountant Paddy to be the Montebello business manager. Before this, Noel had been presumed successor because he’s the oldest, and the shift in paradigm upsets both Noel (for obvious reasons) and Kitty. Kitty insists that the oldest son inheriting is the “Island way,” and her Zey Island connections will be very wary of any other plan. I think Kitty is very protective of doing things the “Island way” because her Island connections are what bring value to her relationship with Harry. Like I already mentioned, she also wants to marry Sissy off to an Island boy because she thinks it would be valuable to show the other Islanders that the Montebellos still have family on Zey Island.

Kitty has good reason to worry about her standing in the Montebello family. At first, Harry seems to be devoted to her. We get several scenes of Harry working with his enforcer, Vince, to design and build a staircase for his bed so that Kitty’s beloved Chihuahua can climb into bed with her. The gesture isn’t really appreciated though, because Harry and Kitty are in the middle of a big fight over the business when Kitty sees the staircase for the first time. Harry has also not been faithful to Kitty. He has been having an affair with the Montebello company lawyer, Natasha, and Sissy catches them on the security camera. We will learn more about the affair and just how long it’s been going on as the series progresses. Noel also has his fair share of family drama. He and wife Toni are newly separated, and Noel is torn between his usual instinct to scream and hit things when things don’t go his way and Toni’s ultimatum that he can’t see his kids if he’s in that state.

The bad drug deal in PNG has much larger ripple effects than the Montebellos imagined. The Montebellos rely on a local biker gang to distribute the product they import, and the bikers try to short them. First they short them for some of the product being missing, then they short them more just because they’re jerks. Harry threatens them, though, reminding them that it’s a miracle his boys pulled any product out of that bad situation on PNG, and they come up with a plan to make good. Noel, however, in his quest to prove himself to his father, goes and wrecks the whole situation again. He gets a meth cooker who usually works with the bikers to come with him to PNG to see a guy called the Chinaman. The Chinaman has a fancy meth lab, and this cooker is going to cook meth for the Montebellos to import and distribute.

When the new meth appears on the market, the biker gang is pissed. While they have no proof, they can pretty clearly guess the Montebellos are behind it. Since Harry pretty sincerely denies it, they correctly surmise that Noel is the culprit. Harry is pissed at Noel when he finds out what he did, calling distribution “the shitty side of the business.” Noel must pay his penance. One of the guys from the biker gang shoots up his house, where only Toni and the two kids are living at the moment. It’s a traumatic experience for all the Montebellos, and Toni and the kids end up staying at Harry and Kitty’s mansion for a while. Harry says that they need to do something big to end the war with the bikers quickly, and he makes good on that promise in tropical fashion. He throws the shooter into a pool with box jellyfish while two other members of the biker gang watch.

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