‘The Unusual Suspects’ review: a zany, unhinged caper that skewers the ultra-rich

The struggles of immigrant women and the realities of capitalism are at the heart of this SBS comedy-drama

The opening sequence of The Unusual Suspects sets the tone for the rest of the series: utter chaos. As a fire breaks out at a children’s birthday party at a mansion and guests scramble to escape, party host and socialite Roxanne Waters (Michelle Vergara Moore) frantically informs the crowd that there’s been a robbery. Garth Beasley (Matt Day) wonders aloud: “Who’d be stupid enough to steal from Roxanne Waters?”

From there, the four-part series works backwards to uncover the knotty truth about the heist. A $16million heirloom necklace is at the centre of the plot, but it’s really about the women surrounding it: Roxanne, fellow influencer Sara Beasley (Miranda Otto) and a group of Filipina women: Sara’s nanny Evie De La Rosa (Aina Dumlao), Roxanne’s nanny Amy (Lena Cruz) and aspiring lifestyle coach Gigi (Susana Downes), who’s taken a temporary job as a cleaner upon her recent arrival in Australia.

The Unusual Suspects
Aina Dumlao and Susana Downes. Credit: SBS Australia

Set in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney, the show exposes the faultlines in the opulent lives of millionaires. Self-centred and vacuous Sara is about to ink a multi-million dollar deal with an American company for her website (or what she calls a “curated wellness experience”), and is so busy with work that she neglects her husband and children. She’s more concerned with uploading photos of her family for likes (#beautifulbeastlies) than actually spending quality time with them. The writing here often borders on cringe – “I’m goopier than Gwyneth and cooler than Kim,” Sara says at one point – but Otto is convincing in her delivery, creating a perfectly hateable yet pitiable character.

Child-rearing is left to beloved nanny Evie, who fusses over Sara’s children, teaches them Tagalog and cooks traditional Filipino meals for them – one shot shows a pan sizzling with egg and Spam as she prepares spamsilog, a popular Filipino breakfast. But Evie herself has left her own daughter behind in the Philippines with an abusive husband. Movingly portrayed by Dumlao, the character reveals the difficulties experienced by many immigrant women who come to a new country to look after someone else’s family so they can support their own. Evie and her band of Filipina women meet up outside of work to share their experiences, unknown to their bosses; their solidarity in diaspora keeps them going through the tough times.

Class differences is a key theme in The Unusual Suspects, which reveals certain uneven societal attitudes (one memorable line: “Jordan’s a white-collar criminal, not some lowlife”). It’s often hard to watch the way in which Sara treats Evie, gaslighting her and threatening to fire her when, secretly broke, Sara can’t actually afford to pay the nanny. Despite Evie having worked for Sara for years, Sara is surprised to learn she has a child of her own – it’s clear Sara’s never taken the time, or cared, to get to know her.

The Unusual Suspects
Miranda Otto, Heather Mitchell, Aina Dumlao, Michelle Vergara Moore. Credit: SBS Australia

Even the upwardly mobile women of colour, such as Roxanne, experience racism – as racial epithets are fired like bullets, scenes with her mother-in-law become uncomfortable to watch. The Unusual Suspects lets the rich characters betray themselves with their actions, revealing their prejudices and ignorances. The nannies are the sharpest and most resourceful of the bunch – and the power dynamic is flipped as the story unfolds, with the bosses eventually realising they can’t succeed without the women they so often take for granted.

The Unusual Suspects has been marketed as a story about female friendship and empowerment, but at its heart it’s really about one thing: capitalism. The theft of the necklace is almost a MacGuffin that provides an opportunity for the poorer women to break free of the limits imposed upon them by their realities, while for the socialites it’s a chance to disentangle themselves from their husbands.

The trouble here, however, is that the show hinges female empowerment upon capitalism, buying into the alluring myth that money begets liberation. There are class discrepancies that are never quite resolved; though the story celebrates friendship and reconciliation, I found myself rooting for the Filipina nannies to get what they need to return to their actual families and sever ties with their exploitative Australian bosses.

Well-meaning but flawed politics aside, The Unusual Suspects is quite a bit of rambunctious fun as it takes unexpected twists and turns. Drama and tension are offset by genuinely funny and surprising moments, driven primarily by the incredible Dumlao and her straight-man act. As the zany plot to steal the necklace is gradually revealed, things get more unhinged – it’s completely bonkers and totally unrealistic, but exactly the kind of silly, high-stakes caper that makes for great popcorn viewing.

‘The Unusual Suspects’ is streaming on SBS On Demand now

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