Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

TV Review: 'Safe Harbour' Speaks To Immigration Fears


"Safe Harbour" is a four-part Australian TV series about five friends on a yachting holiday who meet a boatload of desperate refugees and a decision that changes their lives. This show recently debuted on Hulu, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show speaks to our fears about immigration and guilt about refugees in a potent way.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Safe Harbour" begins with a deceptively simple question. If you're asked to risk your life to help save a boatload of strangers from another country and culture, would you do it?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

DEGGANS: The story begins with a celebration as five middle-class white Australians enjoy each other's company on a yacht trip to Indonesia. But the revelry evaporates when they come across a stranded fishing boat packed with black and brown refugees seeking asylum.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, unintelligible).

DEGGANS: Eventually, the group agrees to try towing the larger boat to safer waters. Years later, after realizing an Iranian family on the boat made it to Australia, the group of friends invites that family to dinner, only to face a shocking confrontation.


NICOLE CHAMOUN: (As Zahra Al-Bayati) You said you would take us to Australia, and in the middle of the night, you cut us loose. How could you? How could you leave us there? Seven people died. Seven. You killed my daughter.

DEGGANS: That's not really a spoiler because things are never what they seem in this taut drama, which toggles back and forth between the incident at sea and the present day. Each episode reveals deeper details like peeling an onion. Everyone involved is culpable in different ways, carrying the burden of lies told, guilt, shame and regret.

For example, the Australians assume the refugees cut their towing line for fear of being taken back to Indonesia. The question of who cut the rope is an open one, and Ismail, the Iranian father who lost his daughter, is so wracked by grief, he refuses to consider that anyone besides the Australians could be at fault, even when the yacht's captain, Ryan Gallagher, tries to tell his side.


EWEN LESLIE: (As Ryan Gallagher) No, I'm asking you the reign things in. It's getting messy, man.

HAZEM SHAMMAS: (As Ismail Al-Bayati) So now you think things are getting messy. My daughter is dead. Six other people on our boat are dead. Who's suffered the most here, mate?

DEGGANS: Ewen Leslie, who also appeared in Jane Campion's magnificent limited series "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," is compelling as the yacht's conflicted, earnest captain, Ryan Gallagher. And Hazem Shammas gives a subtle, humanizing performance as Ismail, allowing us to sympathize with a man pushed into a self-destructive obsession with the people he blames for his daughter's death.

This story also serves as a thought-provoking allegory for the Western world's angst over the current refugee crisis. Just like the Australian vacationers in this story, Western countries have seen their ideals tested by large numbers of refugees seeking shelter from horrific conditions. Consider this moment when Ryan's wife, Bree, tells police investigators how she really felt when she realized the boat with the refugees was gone.


LEEANNA WALSMAN: (As Bree Gallagher) They came aboard our boat in the middle of the night, and then they stole our life jackets. They stole the dinghy. We could have had our throats cut, you know? OK? When I woke up in the morning and I saw that their boat was gone, I felt relieved. No, I can't incriminate myself. I haven't done anything. We haven't done anything.

DEGGANS: With no big international stars and a complex subject, Hulu's "Safe Harbour" is the kind of series which could easily be overlooked. But it's worth seeking out, offering a potent parable on how hesitating to help people in desperate need can still change the lives of those who hold back that aid forever. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.