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Center for the Arts and Humanities Blog

Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Jack Irish, the best detective show you’ve never heard of

by Angela Holzmeister

In the final episode of the Australian detective series Jack Irish, the eponymous lawyer turned gambler, debt collector, and (reluctant) detective (played by the brilliant Guy Pearce) says to his former partner Drew Greer, “After 20 years, I’m close to understanding Isabel’s death,”to which Drew replies, “Will that bring her back to life?” The murder of Jack’s wife Isabel by a disgruntled client, which occurs in the first minutes of the first episode of the series, resurfaces in the final season of the drama when Jack learns the news that a recent parolee and ensuing local murders are somehow connected to the incident that was considered a closed case decades earlier with the suicide of Isabel’s murderer.

two people running over a rooftop

p/c: ABC

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Jack Irish is a terribly smart and intricately-written television series, based on the novels and characters of Peter Temple. And it’s fast-paced, lacking the expositional moments that have become commonplace in its American counterparts. You won’t find any “let me explain exactly where we are now and how we got here” moments in Jack Irish, so get your drink before you settle into an episode, and if your ear isn’t quite tuned to the Australian accent and slang, captions are recommended.

While the series’ cases run the gamut of corrupt civic institutions, drug smuggling, fixed pony races, and sexy extortions, the themes of grief and loss are embedded in each of the characters’ personal lives. Jack Irish is like many of its generic predecessors wherein the protagonist is emotionally afflicted with personal tragedy; however, in contrast to shows like True Detective, Mare of Easttown, and the exceptional Happy Valley, Jack Irish presents a rather “every man” character (a man who relies on others’ brawn and brains to solve his cases) who distracts himself from his loss by helping others understand their own. 

Moreover, losses in Jack Irish aren’t always deaths – sometimes the losses and accompanying grief are about the pain of difficult family relationships, faithless lovers, career failures, misplaced trust, bygone youth, and missed life moments. The gift of Jack Irish isn’t that he prevents others from feeling pain and loss, but that he acknowledges the injury with a lawyer’s discretion and investigates ways to stop the bleeding and cauterize the wound. The reward of Jack Irish is that in viewing others’ losses and moving forward (as opposed to moving on in a way that becomes forgetful of, or diminishes and disregards the past), we see ourselves persevering through the inevitable losses we all must face. The characters in the show acknowledge and live with their losses, which is shown through memories, photographs, and conversations reflecting on regrets and past pains. Jack Irish also grants this characterization and reflection to almost all of its cast members, not simply (and more typically) to the main detective character (as in The Killing, Luther, and The Outsider), which creates the community atmosphere of the show and the sense that these characters have real connections beyond the current case.

The series, which wrapped up this summer after a decade of filming, is not quite noir nor procedural drama – Jack Irish plays out as a tragicomedy, as the relatable protagonist uses his lawyering skills to track down missing persons in and beyond Melbourne, to cover his tracks when he runs upon a dead body without a plan, and to negotiate the football politics among the neighborhood’s old widowers (ironically-named the “Fitzroy Youth Club”) at the corner pub.

people drinking at a bar

p/c: Lachlan Moore/Acorn TV

One of the virtues of Jack Irish is that the main character is a man simply trying to get on with life (albeit not always successfully), instead of the lone wolf and tortured soul one might expect in light of his personal tragedy in the opening minutes of the series. In fact, Jack is one of many characters in what unfolds as a truly ensemble cast consisting of the aforementioned group of grumpy old “footy” fanatics, Jack’s sometime girlfriend and hard-hitting journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp), Jack’s boss and horse racing expert Harry Strang (Roy Billing) along with his bodyguard Cam (Aaron Pederson) and a bevy of supporting characters who aid Jack in solving the cases he didn’t ask for and can’t talk his way out of.

The series may have just ended, but there’s still plenty of time to binge all the episodes before the beginning of Fall term. Remember to start with the three 90-minute mini-movies (“Bad Debts,” “Black Tide,” and “Dead Point”) before Seasons 1, 2, and 3. So, grab your bevvie, head to your idiot box or pull up your lappy, and enjoy this clever show, because Jack Irish is fair dinkum.

summer 2021 blog

Angela Holzmeister is a Lecturer in the Classic Department. She has watched more detective dramas during Covid than she’d like to admit and has strong opinions on all of them. Additionally, she firmly believes that Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is one of the greatest novels (detective or not) ever written and highly recommends it.