Show of the Week: Hunted, Saturday, SBS One, 8.30pm
WHEN actor Melissa George hit the publicity hustings last week, she was noticeably prickly when the questions turned to her role on Home and Away. She even hung up on one reporter who, perhaps disingenuously, inquired if she is often asked about the enduring teen soap on which she appeared about 15 years ago.
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Melissa George stars in this spy drama that struggles to find its feet. Giles Hardie and Greg Hassall give their verdict.
The interviewers ought to have done her and themselves a favour. Does anyone pester Guy Pearce any more about Neighbours, Lisa McCune about Blue Heelers, or David Wenham about Seachange?
Why not ask George about her roles on Alias; the innovative HBO drama In Treatment; or The Slap, in which she nailed the character of the mercurial, insecure and sullenly resentful Rosie, or indeed the show she was busily promoting, Hunted? Does anyone else sniff an unpleasant odour of sexism in the refusal to take seriously the at-times frothy, blonde performer?
One-part globe-trotting espionage thriller in the style of Spooks, and one-part psychological drama about a disturbed individual unlocking her tormented past, Hunted is a pulpy rendition of the super-spy genre with a protagonist that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jason Bourne.
A co-production between HBO and the BBC, it was created by Frank Spotnitz, whose previous credits include The X-Files, Millennium and the recent Strike Back - large ''E'' entertainment shows that also managed to tap into a vein of populist sentiment.
In Hunted, it's the shadowy world of private investigators and gun-for-hire security firms such as the aptly named Byzantium, which employs George's Sam Hunter and her slick colleagues to stage elaborate and far-fetched cloak-and-dagger operations for clients whose motives, ethics and purposes aren't entirely clear.
It cynically suggests that when it comes to international politics, mysterious private companies backed by deep-pocketed businesspeople hold more influence and sway than elected governments.
Like Spooks and, to some extent, Homeland, this trades on the premise that morally rootless people in the business of peddling information and secrets will eventually need to form allegiances - be that to another person, a job or a cause.
In the opening scene in Tangier, Sam Hunter is enjoying a stolen moment with her Middle Eastern lover, who turns out to be a gangster lured by George's honeytrap spy into one of Byzantium's plots, a plot that takes the prize for one the most ridiculous cloak-and-dagger double-crosses - at least until the next one comes along some 30 minutes later.
The densely plotted set-up results in Hunter being injured and left for dead.
She retires to a quaint corner of the British countryside, where she broods and pouts and wears thick woollen jumpers and hats. Here she eats her way through a pantry filled with tinned pork and ham, has flashbacks to the traumatic moment when she lost her mother, and convinces herself that she was set up in Tangier.
The hunter having become the hunted, she plans her return to Byzantium where, predictably, she will mastermind a way of double-crossing those who double-crossed her.
Naturally enough, things are about to become a lot more complicated. Too complicated, perhaps, because despite high hopes this would fill the gap of the recently ended Spooks, audiences declined sharply during the show's eight-week run on the BBC.
Critics have complained that its labyrinthine plot is too complicated, but despite threats it would be cancelled, a second season has been commissioned.
Hunted is a slick and highly produced show, artfully designed and densely plotted - a show in which clues, as well as red herrings, are concealed in unlikely places that a casual viewer might miss.
Yet for all its stylish flourishes and knowing winks at its own preposterousness, it has a fair share of ham-fisted plot devices.
It has one foot in spy-fantasy intrigue, another in conventional melodrama. Its violence, too, is strangely ambivalent, ranging from choreographed chop-socky to a moment of particular squeamishness only minutes from the end of the first episode.
The cast also includes the magnetic Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost), Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones) and Scott Handy, whose ''Blank Faced Man'', as he is called in the credits, will become permanently etched in the memories of those who watch this loopy, plot-twisty and, yes, enjoyable piece of gothic escapism.