Sunday, April 12, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Serangoon Road

Again, some spoilers below for the HBO Asia series Serangoon Road. Folks who would like to learn how some things turn out in the show the old-fashioned way should wait before reading.
Singapore in 1964 was a small island state about to start down a path that would get very big very quickly. Its citizens, a mix of ethnic Chinese and Malaysians with some Australian and English residents, were close to gaining independence from Malaysia despite interference from Great Britain, who plan to turn over Singapore's governance to its citizens, but on their own terms.

Into this the 2013 show Serangoon Road throws Sam Callaghan, an Australian who as a boy during World War II was held captive by Japanese invaders in the infamous Changi prison camp. Sam grew up in Singapore and still lives there, running an import-export business with his friend Kang. By chance, he finds himself using his long contacts with several different communities to help Patricia Cheng solve a case for her late husband, the detective Winston Cheng. Patricia needs the agency to stay open in order to have a livelihood, and so Callaghan eventually agrees to help her out more regularly. He's also trying to balance an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of Australian businessman Frank Simpson. Patricia's niece Su Ling does office work for the agency and she finds herself attracted to American "cultural attache" (CIA agent) Conrad Harrison, who is backstopping the CIA in its growing involvement in Vietnam.

This should be the recipe for some entertaining fun, mixing the Mad Men-era with some cultural exploration and political intrigue. It only simmers, though, and never boils. Australian TV veteran Don Hany has a craggy charisma as Sam, but the problem is that Sam himself is a self-interested homewrecker and Claire is a bland and boring twerp. That's not really actress Maeve Demody's fault as much as it is the series scripts, which only occasionally call on her to do anything other than sleep with Sam or gaze longingly at him while in the company of her husband. Frank's excessive travel for his company gives Claire and Sam the window for their trysts, but the show never offers a good reason for Claire to want to leave her husband for Sam -- he doesn't abuse her, he's kind and obviously cares about her even if he has a 1960s attitude about what wives do when their husbands are at work (not much, and enjoy the inactivity). The one season of Serangoon Road that's filmed so far ends with Sam first professing his love for Claire, then deciding she doesn't fit in Singapore and then declaring his love for her again. Only at the very end does Claire take a little charge of her own fate when she decides to try to make her marriage work and leave Singapore with Frank, and most of that process happens off-screen.

Far more interesting are the minor characters of Su Ling and Conrad Harrison. Pamelyn Chee as Su Ling is a hoot, frostily rebuffing Conrad at first even though she is obviously interested and making him work for an opportunity to spend time with her. Australian Michael Dorman manages to be just about as American as Richie Cunningham and begins to show some layers of potential as the season moves along. First he goes out of his way to hide Su Ling's connection to some of the radical elements seeking a Communist takeover of Singapore, then winds up playing a much bigger game of espionage when British intelligence agents uncover his work and blackmail him for information. The pair are miles more entertaining than Sam and Claire, and a show that focused some more on them might have drummed up enough interest for a second season.

Whether or not Serangoon Road accurately reflects 1960s Singapore is probably a question best left to those who were there -- the real-life neighborhood portrayed in the show looks nothing like it did then and episodes were shot in Indonesia. It relies on stock characters a little more often than it should, such as ruthless Chinese tong gangsters and thinly-veiled racist authority figures. Although Su Ling wears modern (for the time) dress, Patricia Cheng and many of the other female Asian characters tart up in the usual cheongsam silk dresses, slit along the seam to a height appropriate to the virtue of their station and character. Sam and most of the other Anglo male characters seem to have skipped the time in wardrobe set aside to give them period hairstyles. And while there's a healthy portion of American and British intelligence skullduggery, the supposed turmoil of the times is mostly background except in an episode or two.

Serangoon Road represents a lot of failed opportunities and missed chances -- it could have really blended the intrigue of its era into its stories, it could have made Sam less of a selfish dork, it could have used his horrific time in Changi as something other than a marketing hook and a once-every-other-episode flashback, it could have made Claire more interesting than a sheet of paper, it could have eschewed Sam and Claire entirely for Su Ling and Conrad, it could have woven its central search for Winston Cheng's killer into more of its storyline than the last episode and a half, and so on. Unless show creators give some indication that they want to make some moves along those lines, then there's not much reason to mourn that it ended after only one season.

No comments: