Some of the best TV of our time has been set at the intersection of human folly and systemic rot, from The Wire’s Dickensian Baltimore to the gallows comedy of the carceral state in Orange Is the New Black. Using large casts and multiseason sprawl, these shows slowly widen their frames to capture more misery—and access more insight.
Though immigrant stories abound in the Trump era, American TV has yet to perform such a thorough dissection of our immigration system. The next best thing is Stateless, an emotional look at Australia’s similar human-rights crisis from creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie that is inspired in part by the real scandal of Australian permanent resident Cornelia Rau’s unlawful detention in the early 2000s. What’s remarkable is how broad a picture the miniseries, which comes to Netflix on July 8, manages to create in just six episodes featuring a handful of characters.
Yvonne Strahovski, best known for her stunning performance as the conflicted Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale, stars as the Rau-like Sofie, a misfit flight attendant who channels her loneliness into a cultlike dance troupe run by a charismatic couple (Blanchett and The Wire‘s own Dominic West). But when she blows a big performance, they banish her on the spot. Later, in a twist the show takes its time explaining, Sofie shows up at an immigration detention center in the Australian desert with, mysteriously, a passport identifying her as German and the accent to match.
It’s there that the four main characters converge. Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) is an Afghan refugee fleeing the Taliban with his wife (Saajeda Samaa) and daughters (Soraya Heidari and Ilaha Rahemi). Another kind husband and father, Cam (Jai Courtney), takes a well-paid job as a guard at the facility over the objections of his activist sister. Finally there’s Claire (Asher Keddie), a public servant freshly promoted to an impossible post controlling the center’s public image.
Stateless starts slow, and its earnestness may be off-putting to some. But it has something profound to say about how injustice can snowball into catastrophe. Institutional power compounds the effects of choices made by deluded, self-interested, poorly trained individuals; even good intentions can backfire, with lethal results. How can a system entrusted with the world’s most vulnerable populations possibly succeed when—for the people who live and work within it—excelling at your job or providing for your family doesn’t always mean doing the right thing?