“Arabic always sounds kind of harsh when I hear it on TV, but not when you speak it.” So says a white Australian woman to an Iranian man in the tony new Aussie import Safe Harbour, a melodrama about immigration, privilege, lives crashing against each other, and how all of this is more complex than TV usually lets on. The show is pointedly earnest, reasonably compelling, well acted, shot and cut with moody, propulsive power. Secrets get exposed, cultural barriers get smashed and re-erected, and every apparent villain will prove heroic and every hero something of a villain. It opens as a thriller, with well-heeled Aussies yachting toward Indonesia and discovering a crapped-out ship of 40 refugees bobbing dead in the water. After some tensely agonized decision-making, the Australians agree to tow the vessel back home — but then something goes wrong. (Only time and flashbacks can reveal exactly what.) Intercut with this are scenes from five years later: Surviving refugee Ismail (the brooding and commanding Hazem Shammas), now a cab driver, spots the sailboat’s captain, Ryan (Ewen Leslie), on the streets of Brisbane. Ryan hails a taxi, and suddenly past and present, secrets and lies, all get smashed together.
So, it’s effectively dramatic TV crafted to emphasize the point that people are people no matter where we’re from. The curious thing — the dismaying thing — is how its creators steep their narrative in the assumptions they’re purporting to tear down. Consider that line about the apparent harshness of Arabic. The character who says this isn’t offering a critique of media depictions of Muslims. Instead, she’s marveling, like it’s news to her that there’s more to Iraqi life than is depicted on Homeland. She’s a beaming, bustling sort, a naif who runs her own cafe in Brisbane. And soon she has offered this man — an ex-Special Forces killer turned refugee who, through convolutions of the plot, has recently lost his home and job — some part-time work, under the table. This arrangement seems to work out well, the first day, at least until closing time. The two exchange good nights and grateful smiles, and the man purports to exit the cafe through a back doorway. But he doesn’t; he skulks in the storeroom shadows, waiting for her to leave, the music and the editing cueing us to take this all as suspenseful. This nice white woman must be in danger — after all, he’s an Iranian man, and this is TV.
Safe Harbour’s creators upend that expectation, of course. (Those creators include showrunner Belinda Chayko and director Glendyn Ivin.) But to achieve that, to stir dramatic tension while imparting their lessons about our common humanity, they cast us as naifs, too. We don’t see his sneaking around from her subjective perspective, so every choice of lighting and cutting that suggests something nefarious is presented as the show’s objective reality. We’re pressed to fear him, to assume that he’s up to the worst, all so that a couple of scenes later, Safe Harbour can prove us wrong. The contorted message: Arabic speakers may sound more harsh on TV than in real life, but they do seem a little sneaky, right?
In the world of Safe Harbour, Arabic speakers are also amusingly committed to explicating to non-speakers the themes of the conflicts that they share. Late in the four-episode series, cab driver Ismail, another Iranian who has found asylum in Australia, gets handed by Ryan evidence of a life-changing secret that both men misunderstand. Ismail turns away, and Ryan, devastated, pleadingly shouts, “Ismail.”
“Do you know what that means? What my name means?” Ismail asks of this man who has, over several episodes, participated with him in the shared project of destroying each other’s lives. “It means ‘heard by God.’ It means ‘an answer to a prayer.’ What do you think? Is God listening?”
Not long after this, the two men, the series’ co-leads, will be engaged in a brawl in a torrential downpour, a climactic burst of weather engineered to tell us that a) the storm has come at last, b) that the waters are cleansing away some shared sin, and c) that before God and the elements, these men are essentially the same. Apparently inconsequential is the fact that one has lost his homeland, his extended family, his livelihood, all his possessions and his daughter while the other has pretty much only lost his sailboat. Yes, Ryan thinks he has lost more than that, and that Ismail is to blame, but we know that he hasn’t. Meanwhile, Safe Harbour presents Ismail as briefly, madly murder-minded, racing off to do the unthinkable.
For the ending to work as the creators seem to intend, a viewer must identify closely with Ryan but also find Ismail fundamentally unknowable, capable of anything. The series’ hook, that scene of the Australians trying to decide what to do about that boat of refugees, is a memorable what-would-you-do? scenario. The series’ failure is its deeply limited understanding of who you might be.