By Chris Byrd
NEW YORK (CNS) — Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, the late poet and peace activist, once said of his work: “It’s pulling a piano across a plowed field.” Substitute driving for pulling, and across Australia for a plowed field, and that pretty well sums up the curious quest at the heart of “Upright.”
Though well-received by critics and audiences alike when it debuted on Australia’s Fox Showcase channel in November 2019, the eight-episode dramedy — which begins streaming on Sundance Now Thursday, Aug. 6 — turns out to be raunchy as well as morally questionable. Two half-hour episodes of the series will be released each Thursday through Aug. 27.
Comedy writer Chris Taylor created the program, largely as a vehicle for the versatile Tim Minchin. Arguably more familiar to Australian and U.K. audiences than American ones, Minchin is a comedian, actor and musician, perhaps best known as the composer and lyricist of the Tony Award-winning West End and Broadway show “Matilda, the Musical.”
Minchin plays the ironically named Lucky Flynn. Lucky hasn’t returned to his home town of Perth since betraying his older brother, Toby (Daniel Lapaine), by having an affair with with Toby’s wife, Suzie (Ella Scott Lynch), eight years ago.
This transgression not only sowed enmity between the siblings, it also precipitated the demise of their once-popular band, Dog Swap, of which Lucky had been the front man.
When, however, Lucky’s mom, Jen (Heather Mitchell), a terminal cancer patient, summons him to come home, the forty-something determines to answer the call and reconcile with her before she dies. For reasons viewers don’t initially understand, he also decides to haul the titular piano — which had belonged to Jen’s mother and on which Jen taught Lucky how to play — across country with him.
Early in his long trek, Lucky has a collision with teen driver Meg (Milly Alcock) that disables his truck. Meg, on the run to escape a family tragedy, offers the impecunious musician the use of her own conveyance, a utility vehicle with a cargo hold known in Australia as a “ute.”
In exchange, Lucky promises to drop Meg off in Kalgoorlie, where she claims she will reconnect with her mother. First, though, Lucky drives her to an urgent care center to have the broken arm she suffered in the accident mended.
“Upright” focuses primarily on the dynamic between this mismatched, randomly thrown-together pair. Despite the ongoing mutual deceptions in which Lucky and Meg engage, Taylor and his co-writers want viewers to understand how these battered souls develop a bond like that of a big brother and little sister, helping each other to come to terms with the traumas each has endured in the past.
A series of progressively outlandish scenarios involving barroom fights, bare-knuckle brawling and the use of a construction crane to rescue the piano from a police impound lot are meant to provide comic relief. They might also serve to distract the audience’s attention from the main characters’ moral misdoings.
These include Meg’s theft of a truck and Lucky’s attempt to forge a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. The script also implies that viewers should sympathize with Lucky’s nefarious behavior toward Toby simply because the latter is a jerk.
Adultery, drug use, underage drinking, suicide, rearview nudity and sexual activity combine to make “Upright” an offering even many adults may not find inviting. There’s also an excess of vulgarity and profanity in the dialogue.
Some may plead that this is simply the way people talk nowadays. But the use of such language is a lazy way to convey emotions that ought to be limned with more precision and subtlety.
Despite its crassness, the series does produce some tender, sweet moments. Those featuring Minchin’s evocative piano playing and singing are especially effective.
His character’s significant flaws notwithstanding, moreover, Minchin succeeds in making Lucky, with his endearingly hangdog expression, fundamentally sympathetic and appealing. Still, even Minchin’s diversity of talents can’t keep “Upright” on its feet.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.