This weekend marks the final hurrah of one Australian television’s most beloved and certainly most dishevelled investigators: Jack Irish. Or – as Bob Franklin’s goon-like character describes him throughout the series – “Jack fuckin’ Irish!”, the profanity-as-middle-name bestowing upon Guy Pearce’s titular character an appropriate degree of street cred.
After three telemovies chased by two TV seasons, the lawyer-cum-gumshoe’s latest and last production has arrived. Episodes from the four-part finale land weekly on ABC TV from June 13, with all immediately available to stream on iView.
If you’ve never dived into the Jack Irish universe before, this nifty spoiler-free guide – written in the middle of the night in a scuzzy Melbourne laneway, next to an overflowing rubbish bin with three very shady-looking dudes approaching the author, one armed with a crowbar, as Irish would want – will bring you up to speed.
But continue reading only if you answer yes to the following three questions. One: do you like pacey and punchy cloak-and-dagger stories involving shifty people and high-level conspiracies? Two: do you appreciate genre writing (in this instance, adapted from Peter Temple’s best-selling crime novels) that doesn’t feel oppressively formulaic? And three: do you like Guy Pearce?
If you answered “yes” to all three, then keep reading – because you’ll dig Jack Irish. If you answered “no” to that last question, seek medical help. Everybody likes Guy Pearce.
Jack Irish: Bad Debts (2012)
The first Jack Irish telemovie begins with a literal and figurative bang. The literal is the gunshot that kills Irish’s stunningly beautiful wife (Emma Booth). She is murdered by a disgruntled client who snarls “Are you listening now, Jack?” before turning the gun on himself. In this introductory scene Pearce looks sharp and schmick in a suit and tie; in the next, which jumps ahead in time, he’s ratty and unshaven, collecting debts from a grubby-looking man in a dressing gown.
Irish has fallen from grace, that much is obvious. So the plot darts ahead, setting a disciplined narrative pace sustained in every subsequent instalment. The plot of Bad Debts involves an old client of Irish’s who calls him and is shot dead by a cop shortly after. One thing leads to another, as these things go, with Irish’s subsequent investigations leading him to cover-ups involving the police and government ministers. Importantly, Irish gets together with investigative journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp), forming a romantic and professional relationship that spans the entire franchise.
The action scenes in Bad Debts are well-staged but workmanlike, and feel a little too much like exercises in box-ticking. The show is wrapped up tightly and effectively, though without a great deal of impact – certainly, nothing compared to what will come.
Jack Irish: Black Tide (2012)
Before we continue, it’s crucial to mention another relationship that continues throughout Jack Irish, involving the protagonist and what he sarcastically but affectionately describes as “the Fitzroy Youth Club”. Said club consists of three old blokes (Terry Norris, John Flaus and Ronald Falk) who are the barflies at the Prince Of Prussia – the pub Irish works out the back of and regularly drinks at. There he sits down for a beer with Des Connors (Ronald Jacobson), an old mate of his late father, who asks for help locating his missing son.
Before you know it, Irish is being shot at by corrupt cops and embroiled in a nefarious scheme involving lots of money and long-buried secrets. I’m being deliberately stingy with plot details for the benefit of the uninitiated; much of the pleasure of watching this series comes from keeping up with its twists and turns. Another important character here and throughout is Shane Jacobson’s junk food-scarfing detective Barry Tregear, who helps Irish out from time to time – and expects assistance in return.
Black Tide is sharply written, like every Jack Irish outing, but less emotionally involving than the other productions. There are characters who suffer (even die) but they’re almost always peripheral personalities – and the stakes don’t feel particularly high this time around.
Jack Irish: Dead Point (2014)
Which takes us to Dead Point and its one pulse-pounding scene where Irish is attacked and nearly killed in Fitzroy Park. He comes home, understandably rattled, and explains what happened to Linda – only to be casually dismissed (“Yeah yeah, but you’re OK, right?”). In another he is shot at by Vince Colosimo, and if the “dodgy bloke” factor wasn’t high enough in the third telemovie, it also co-stars John Jarratt as a police sergeant. Draw your own conclusions about whether he’s likely to be on the take.
The plot involves a leather-bound book that goes missing, one that holds juicy secrets about powerful people. As the stakes escalate, Guy Pearce gets his action movie star game on, at one point perfectly timing a jump out of a fast-moving car seconds before it takes out a goon and creates a deliciously appealing fireball.
Opening with a daring theft followed by a high speed car chase, and culminating in a dramatic spectacle, the bookend strategy is obvious: open and finish big. All the Jack Irish instalments are fast-paced, but Dead Point steps on the gas and takes things to a higher level.
Jack Irish series 1: Blind Faith (2016)
This is my favourite production in the franchise. It was clear early on that the show would benefit from a longer (six-episode) TV format, with more space to tease out its labyrinthine plotlines. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of character development had already been done, and this series also involves a freaky religious cult (called The Way Of The Cross) – which are always entertaining. Plus there’s added Claudia Karvan, playing an artist and also Irish’s new love interest.
It feels like the two-year break between Dead Point and this series did the show good, giving the writers time to reassess their characters in preparation for a longer and more developed storyline. Perhaps the arrival of series one also marked the point that Jack Irish truly became cemented in Australia’s popular consciousness: here was a guy who could not only command three telemovies, but an entire series (and soon to be two more).
Without giving away what happens, in this series we encounter Irish at his lowest point: bunged up, burned (literally), defeated, dejected, even more down-in-the-mouth than usual. Seeing him hit such a nadir engenders a strong desire to see him back bounce back; it also showcases Pearce’s range in a way the other productions don’t. The old-timers at the bar are in fine form (one of them calling a mate “tighter than a murray cod’s arse”) and by now the show is truly firing on all cylinders.
Jack Irish series 2: Last Rites (2018)
The second series begins pleasantly, with a family in India congregating around a dinner table to read a letter from their daughter/sister who is studying at an Australian university. But Jack Irish doesn’t do ‘nice’, or at least not for long.
This intro ends with the writer of the letter looking distraught and manic on a busy Melbourne street, getting killed after stepping into incoming traffic. Having covered off on shonky cops, politicians, businesspeople and a religious cult, this series changes focus to extreme dodginess in the university sector. One might expect a political message, but there’s no real insight or social commentary; philosophical ideas exist in this series only as scaffolding for blokey bullet-riddled drama.
Norm, a long-time member of the Fitzroy Youth Club, has now passed away and the two remaining old-timers – Eric (Norris) and Wilbur (Flaus) – insist on keeping an empty barstool in his honour. At one point the long-suffering publican Stan (Damien Garvey) bursts into Irish’s office to grab more toilet paper, mentioning a blow-out caused by a change in the menu. Oh, and Deborah Mailman gets shot at. Which of course is a bridge too far. Pick on Irish, sure. But nobody messes with Mailman.
Jack Irish series 3: Hell Bent (2021)
There are lots of recurring characters in Jack Irish to keep up with, including horse owner and racing identity Harry Strang (Roy Billing) and his right-hand man Cam Delray (Aaron Pedersen). They get a particularly poignant arc in the final series, which sets itself the task of drawing an emotionally satisfying send-off in addition to delivering all the grittiness and jiggery-pokery to which we have become accustomed.
It’s been three years since the previous instalment – a gap the narrative skilfully incorporates. The passage of time is used to give the finale its core emotional substance. The old-timers at the pub are now in a nursing home, for instance; Irish is now the father of a very young boy; and the Prince Of Prussia is on the market.
The screenwriters further take a circular approach, throwing Irish into a new investigation tangentially involving the circumstances of his wife’s death – with moments from Bad Debts returning as flashbacks. Thus the ‘this time it’s personal’ trope, dusted off in a way that feels totally unforced and germane to the narrative. That’s one of the great things about Jack Irish: the writing is laced with formulaic elements, but it’s pulled off so well you barely even notice. Some of the credit must go to Guy Pearce, of course, whose performance in this role will be remembered as one of his all-time greatest. He doesn’t just play Jack Irish. He plays Jack fuckin’ Irish.
The final season of Jack Irish premieres June 13 at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iView