The weakest times of this series appear and quickly vanish in the first couple of episodes of the second series; two series were made, and the first is, in some respects, the better of the two: the labyrinthine narrative moves at a slightly quicker pace, while still allowing ample room for character development - this is not to detract from the second series, however - once it gets going it is every bit as good as the first (although lacking a couple of the core characters).
And characters are indeed what makes this at least the best police series ever made in this country (and there have been many), if not the best police series anywhere. Often in this genre characters are reduced to a few quick punchlines and mild caricature. Here, the realist stylistic trajectory taken by the series' creators requires that character development takes place to a level much more at home in the feature film - it being a linear continuing narrative there is not only room for this but it makes it all the more involving, no matter how slowly the overall narrative seems to be moving; these characters are not black-and-white good-and-evil cops of the other police series of the era or contemporary series - these police are more akin to police in film-noir, bureaucrats in kafka or characters in late 1990s legal dramas (although these seem to be drifting back towards black-and-white) - they are individualists, morally ambiguous - while they realise they exist within a system that's restrictive (and not always there for a good reason), they also know what they're trying to achieve and how they can manipulate it to get what they want. Even the sidebar characters (note particularly Bill Hunter's character in one episode of the first series) are well developed. Both series are very much driven by personal concerns; this is not about orthodox legal justice, this is about revenge. The first series, in the wake of a direct, violent attack on the police themselves, is particularly intense in this respect. Narrative is never predictable - the twists and turns of the second series as things seem to get increasingly serious are a high point - the constant re-starts of the investigation keep the interest alive. This realist, unpredictable narrative as well as deep, developed, and ambiguous characters makes for compelling television; adding to this is the fact that it draws its visual stylistic largely from shock-tactic road safety ads which hit screens in Victoria in 1989. That the first series was at least tacitly based on the investigation of a real bombing (which took place outside the Melbourne City Watchhouse in 1986, killing a young female constable in very similar circumstances to the female victim in Phoenix I) gives it all the more resonance for local residents who remember.
The changed political climate between 1991 (the first series) and 1993 (the second series) is also evident; a conservative state government coming to power in 1992 at the height of a recession means the investigations in the second series are hampered almost to the point of collapse by budget cuts and penny pinching by bureaucrats; while the series itself appears to have gone in the opposite direction - from the trembling, average quality (but not without a certain charm) telecine, sparse, tight narrative and cheap sets of the first series to sharp, immaculate images, an endless supply of locations and a considerably larger cast in the second series, room is given to develop the milieu of early 1990s, run-down melbourne in a more effective way, offsetting the less resonant narrative surrounding aggrevated burglaries.
Also of note is the excellent soundtrack by well-known jazz musician and composer Paul Grabowsky.
For students of the police procedural, Phoenix is well worth a look: it is probably the best - best written, most interestingly shot, deepest in terms of social insight and most representative of its period - ever produced in Australia, if not anywhere. Even the excellent Wildside rarely comes close - it is too prone to fits of commercially-conscious melodrama.
N.B: It is occasionally re-run by the ABC late at night; unfortunate, however, is that to buy it on VHS (or any video format; duplication is done exclusively by request) costs AUD$1100.
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