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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Stateless’ On Netflix, Where Four Lives Intersect In An Australian Immigration Detention Center

When you have Cate Blanchett’s name attached to a show, in both an acting and an executive producing capacity, then you know you’re going to get an ambitious series with great performances. Stateless is certainly ambitious. Based on real events, it’s about four people’s experiences at an Australian immigrant detention center. The Australian Broadcasting Company aired it earlier this year, and Netflix is bringing it to the rest of the world. Does the first episode stand up to Blanchett and company’s narrative ambitions?

STATELESS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: A woman runs through the desert, looking like she’s escaping from someone, or something.

The Gist: We flash back and see three situations develop. The woman we see, who looks like she’s been on the run for some time, is Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), a flight attendant in Australia. She’s home for Christmas, visiting her sister Margot (Marta Dusseldorp). Their parents Elka (Catherine Wilkin) and Frank (Helmut Bakaitis), who live nearby, are also there. Elka not only wants to set Sofie up with a boring software engineer, but she continually grills her about her job flying all over the place, and when she’s going to finally settle down like her sister has.

Meanwhile, junkyard worker Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney) celebrates Christmas with his wife Angie (Maria Angelico) and couple friends of theirs. One of the friends, Sully (Clarence Ryan), works for a company that provides officers for the country’s immigration detention center, in the middle of the dessert. After seeing the great gifts he gives Cam’s wife and kids, he starts to wonder if it’s time to get out of his dead-end job. Over drinks with Sully and his co-workers, he’s convinced that, despite the nature of the job, the increased pay is worth it, especially because they’re looking for people and their qualifications aren’t high.

In India, Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), his wife Najeeba (Saajeda Samaa) and his family have escaped from the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan and are looking to take a boat to Australia to seek asylum. Ameer befreinds a couple of people at the hotel where the refugees stay before the boat leaves, and they have to pay what amounts to their life savings to a man they’ve never met. Najeeba is unsure, but Ameer feels this is their best shot.

As his youngest daughter gets sick with malaria, the knock comes for the family and a group of refugees to meet the boat. But they’re left on the beach, no money or passports, to get nabbed by cops. Ameer and his family somehow escape and he goes after the con man to get his and the others’ money back. He shoves the family on the next boat and lets himself get captured by the con man’s thugs.

We then see Sofie escaping her overbearing family and going to a dance sponsored by GOPA, a self-help organization where she takes dance classes. The leaders of the organization, Pat Masters (Cate Blanchett) and Gordon Masters (Dominic West) encourage their “followers” to break out of the “suit” that others have made them wear, and only to follow the path you want to follow.

As she gets deeper into the organization, the Masterses take a special interest in her, and Gordon encourages her to be her own self, which leads her to cut herself off from her family and quit her job. But right before the big dance recital she’s rehearsed for, a session with Gordon goes sour in a very bad way. She runs, her sister is called in when the cops find her, and a plan is in place for Sofia to stay with her parents. Suffice to say, that’s not going to fly with Sofia at all.

Our Take: Stateless has the makings of an excellent drama. The first episode has pieces of story that grab the viewer’s attention and a fine cast that puts in compelling performances from the first scene. But the first episode doesn’t come together as a whole, feeling like three different shows that are going to intersect at some point. There isn’t much of a flow between the stories, and the gravity of each is uneven.

The series, created by Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie is based on a story about a permanent Australian resident who was illegally detained in an immigrant detention center like the one depicted in the series. The idea is that the lives Sofia, Ameer, Cam and a bureaucrat named Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie), who we’ll be introduced to in the second episode, will intersect at this detention center, and the four of them will affect each others’ lives for better or worse.

But we’re missing a ton of information at the end of episode one. For instance, we know that something bad happened to Sofie during her last session with Gordon, and to escape what is essentially a cult, she has to assume a new identity. But we’re assuming a lot here; there’s no other explanation why an Australian citizen such as Sofie ended up at the detention center. We also know that Ameer and his family got separated. But Ameer is in the same group as Sofie, so how did he manage to get out?

One of the things that the series will potentially explore is the fact that, despite seeing Cam get trained that the guards should be respectful of the various refugees’ cultural and religious traditions and not treat them as criminals, there’s still an undercurrent of mistrust. And we know that Claire uncovers a huge scandal.

But, for the moment, it feels like if the show was more about Ameer and less about Sofie, we’d be OK with it. Ameer’s story has more heft and consequence. We need to find out more about just how much the Masterses are threats to Sofie’s life before we can consider her story on par with Ameer’s. This is despite the amazing acting by Strahovski, Blanchett and West in their scenes together. The scenes where Dominic cracks open Sofie and she breaks down are powerful to watch. We’re just not sure, at least at this point, what this story is about besides Sofie wanting to escape her life.

We also need to know more about Cam; all we know is that he wants to provide for his family better than he does now and that he’s taking a job that has had some questionable morality surrounding it. But we’re guessing we’ll get more info on him as he interacts with the detainees.

STATELESS
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: As Cam goes through the line of refugees, asking for their names, Sofie steps up and responds in a German accent, “Eva Hoffman.”

Sleeper Star: Ilaha Rahemi plays Ameer’s younger daughter Sadiqa, who seemed to be the most doubtful of the process of migrating to Australia. Even when she couldn’t move because of malaria, she still was pretty feisty.

Most Pilot-y Line: Could the guy who Sofie’s mom sets her up with be any more boring if they tried? It felt cliche.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Stateless has the pedigree and the performances to match its prestige drama ambitions. But the first episode suffers from tonal mismatches and doesn’t bring the stories together in a satisfying enough way to make us automatically want to watch more.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.

Stream Stateless On Netflix

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