A review of a TV series about gangsters in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Vegas is a new TV series that in the few episodes already aired, has caused some controversy. Apparently in its promotional material TVNZ claims it as a story of love, and brotherhood, against all hope and redemption. Sounds inspiring, so why the controversy?
The story was filmed entirely in and around Rotorua and follows the activities of a majority ethnically Maori gang. It features drug manufacturing and distribution, violence and other anti-social actions. It is mainly these aspects of the show that has created tension. For example, The Rotorua Daily Post (5/5/21) gives voice to the comments of Hohepa Tuahine, a local screen producer who argues that there was no consultation with local iwi/tribe when making the show, which is significant when it includes landmarks of cultural significance, tangata whenua/indigenous people in many roles and that the use of te reo/Maori language in the programme links the language with negative behaviour. This could be seen to create undesirable attitudes about the language for rangitahi/youth.
The primary response from the makers of the show seems to be that to some extent they expected it to generate concerns and korero/conversation and that they will be having hui/meetings to address this. It does seem odd that they are only willing to address this after the show has been produced rather than as part of a pre-production process. Alongside this is the argument of job creation. Approximately 65% of the cast and crew are Maori as are a number of extras. It could be argued that such figures are irrelevant if the content itself is unworthy in the values it expresses. The viewing figures have been healthy, though of course this does not necessarily indicate approval of content or that this will be sustained for the duration of the series. Lastly, one strange aspect to the story is that while it is called Vegas (the well known nickname for Rotorua within NZ) and the locations it uses are very obviously all in Rotorua and anyone with even a passing knowledge of geography will know that, the town in the story goes by another name. This tends to give credence to the idea that a guilty conscience was in play on the part of the makers. It feels like a pretty weak attempt to throw off criticism that the programme shows Rotorua as a ‘gang town’.
Moving from the debate over the cultural implications of the story to the way it is told, there are criticisms to be made. The narrative is easy to comprehend, and that works in its favour. There are no attempts to be clever, it unfolds in a linear fashion and that’s fine. There are times however when it tries too hard. There is an episode in which explicit reference is made to Macbeth both by the characters and in the storyline itself. This kind of referencing has been done before with more gravitas, such as the case of the character Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) in Utu (1983). Though, why is it necessary at all? Are there no traditional indigenous storylines that could be adapted to suit the purpose? Or couldn’t the Shakespearean implications at least just be left implicit or lightly alluded to, like in the series Outrageous Fortune (2005-2010).
In addition, the techniques used to tell the story are derivative and excessive. There is a ubiquitous use of Dutch angles that just make you dizzy rather than serve any subjective or psychological purpose, as they normally might. There is also a sub-Tarrantino resort to split screen effects that looks cool but are unecessarily inserted at random moments. Perhaps the silliest example is when the action is speeded up suddenly for brief spurts. This could indicate something if used selectively to highlight a meaningful point. Instead it is employed twice in the space of 20 seconds to watch somebody walk along a ridge and in another episode to show eggs being put on a plate. What would be wrong with a brief cut from kitchen to table? We appreciate that the series has a limited budget, but if the makers had faith in the actors (who are mostly fine enough) and the story to work in their own right, they wouldn’t feel the need to compensate by overdoing the visual bling. The gratuitous camera-antics also puts an emphasis (intentional or not) on a glamourising of the programme’s less savoury subject matters.
The series isn’t over so it would be inappropriate to give the final word on it. The place of gangs, violence, poverty etc and other social ills in contemporary Aotearoa has been told before. Most famously in Once Were Warriors (1994) or more recently in Savage (2020). There have also been stories with a te Ao Maori/Maori world perspective that have had exclusively Maori casting such as The Deadlands (2020). So there is material out there that can provide a template for a programme like Vegas that could take things in an improved direction. There is still time for it to show that it is in fact already such a programme. We will see.