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Pop CultureAugust 11, 2023

Review: Far North’s far-fetched drug caper is all too real


A star-studded local drama turns a Northland drug bust into a Guy Ritchie-style misadventure. Mostly, it works – for two very good reasons.

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I asked my wife a quick question on our commute recently. “When did you last discover a local drama show that you desperately wanted to see?” Her response: “Harry.” She’s referencing the excellently gritty Oscar Kightley cop show that came out in 2013 (only episode one is available for streaming). Ten years is a long time for someone not to connect with a local drama series, but it’s hard to argue with her answer. For many reasons, mostly financial, we don’t really make shows like Harry anymore. On Monday night, that changes, with something rare floating onto our screens. Finally, we have a local drama series worth getting excited about.

Robyn Malcolm and Temuera Morrison as Heather and Ed in Far North

They’re in track pants and worn shirts. He’s wearing a dusty cap, she’s got pictures of poached eggs on her winter socks. The pair hunch over their dog, looking concerned. “You like that?” asks Heather, gently cuddling his mane. Her husband Ed holds a heat lamp over the legs of their ageing, arthritic golden retriever. “Good boy, Toby,” he says. Ed’s voice is instantly recognisable, a muscular presence that’s powered him through high-octane franchises like Speed, Aquaman and, more recently, Star Wars.

In Far North, Temuera Morrison has a far gentler role to play. Alongside Cheryl West herself, Robyn Malcolm, the pair play a small town Kiwi couple. They’re instantly familiar. It’s like you already know and love them. Heather and Ed have lived a life, they’re a little rough around the edges, but their hearts are in the right place, and they’re enjoying the quiet life. They look after their neighbours, swap gossip with friends on the beach and spend their evenings massaging the dog.

Morrison and Malcolm are very good at this. Of course they are: they’re veterans, local screen legends. It’s taken three decades to reunite the Shortland Street alums. Why that’s happened is almost certainly an indictment on our struggling local TV industry, yet all is forgiven the instant you see the two of them paired up in Far North. It’s an unmissable performance. If Far North was only about Heather and Ed living the good life, I’d happily tune in. You would too. Together, they’re dynamite.

Spoiler alert: Far North is not just about them. Set in the small Northland settlement of Ahipara, this six-part thriller is about far dodgier things. There’s a boat full of meth sitting off Ninety Mile Beach with a group of slowly starving Chinese sailors on board. There’s a Tongan-Australian gang trying to land those drugs on the beach to turn them into $500 million. And there’s a group of Chinese gangsters coordinating it all from overseas. Heather and Ed are the cosy couple caught up in the middle of this shitshow, and the rest of Far North’s chaos rotates around them.

I could tell you what happens next but it sounds so far-fetched you might accuse me of making it up. It’s the kind of thing Guy Ritchie might dream up on vacation. Much of the gang’s antics are so stupidly inept you have to wonder if it really happened. Yeah, it did. Go Google it (or don’t, if you want to avoid spoilers). Go read Jared Savage’s book Underbelly: Inside NZ’s Biggest Meth Bust. This is serious. People are in jail. Patrick Gower spoke to one of them in the middle of a 27-year sentence.

The Tongan-Australian gang tasked with landing $500 million of meth on a Northland beach.

So come for the crooks, if you like. How a bunch of wayward drug lords tried to land a boatload of meth on a Northland beach is a hell of a story. Far North’s creator David White certainly thinks so. He drove to Ahipara and knocked on the door of the real-life Heather and Ed as soon as he heard about it back in 2016. “I bought their life rights on the spot,” he says in the show notes. “It was like my Tiger King mixed with Narcos.” He fills Far North with prestige TV hallmarks: drone shots, text overlays, regular global city jumps, and dialogue drawn straight from court documents.

Not all of it works. Far North’s early moments vibe too comical for something so serious (Wellington Paranormal’s Karen O’Leary and Maaka Pohatu are in the cast). At first, the Tongan-Australians trying to land the drugs on the beach seem too flippant, and their stupidity is played for laughs. Likewise, the show’s Chinese gangsters come off like clichés, complete with their own soundtrack of Chinatown horns announcing their arrival. One has a particular attachment to blowtorches.

But by episode three, Far North finds calmer waters. That’s thanks largely to Robyn and Tem as Heather and Ed. They’re that rare thing, a couple of Kiwi characters you can instantly connect with. They feel like they could be from your own family, friend circle or workplace. They’re great company. “I’ll drop him off some smoked marlin to say thank you,” says Heather after watching her neighbour take a baseball bat to a group of gangsters loitering outside. No doubt that marlin will pair well with a jar of her homemade chow chow too.

Far North airs on Three on Monday at 8.30pm and is available for streaming on ThreeNow.

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