• The Wall in the dystopian French series Trepalium. (Supplied)
The epic new miniseries Trepalium on SBS On Demand gives us hope for adult dystopian stories working well on TV. And there’s a huge wall. People like huge walls.
By
Jeremy Cassar

7 Jun 2016 - 11:17 AM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2016 - 10:47 AM

Dystopian fiction on TV is a hard nut to crack.

Sure, some have debuted to massive success, and kept a cult following, but these are almost always created with a degree of the cartoonish (Falling Skies, Firefly, and of course Doctor Who, but at least it proudly wears its campiness).

On the whole, I find it difficult to invest in high-concept dystopian sci-fi for the entire run of a TV show – and no whiteboard session is going to change that preference. But then I think of Gattaca and Solaris. Well the dream is over - enter Trepalium.

 

What the hell does Trepa… hang on what was the word?

A Trepalium is a three-staked instrument of torture rewarded by the Ancient Romans. Perhaps to warn others of an upcoming hangman tournament, but not so sure. I hope so. 

What’s the show’s set-up?

 

Paris is split into two sections, via an ominous wall. This impenetrable barricade seems to have run for over a century, and it’s a proud symbol for the elite. It allegedly separates those considered worthless from those whose lives are blessed with full-time work. Only a worker deserves a life in Trepalium. 

Unfortunately, France is on the verge of bankruptcy, and Prime Minister Nadia Passeron (Israeli superstar Ronit Elkabetz), is on the hunt for a solution, and so makes a token gesture to the those living on the wrong side of the wall – The Zone.

What’s on one side of the wall?

“The Zone", which is in complete disarray and chaos. It's home to a struggling population that makes up 80% of the city. Yes, 80% lives a beggared existence.

The Zone is lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a rebellious faction called The Activists, which fills the population with a whisper of hope. If President Passeron has anything to say to the underclass, or needs to manipulate “The Zone” for her gain, then The Activists are the only people to make that happen. 

What’s on the other side of the wall?

That place. The “utopian” territory that looks like it could employ more than 20 percent of the city’s population. Ruled by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Labor.

So the 80 per cent have no chance to work?

Enter the lottery.  Kind of like a sick drafting process.

This lottery is a mere token on behalf of the powers-that-be, and forces the starving masses to turn to drastic means in order to hear their name called for a chance at work inside The Wall.

So everyone wants to work but there are no jobs?

It’s not possible to tell from the opening episode how many available jobs await on the city side, and although many in The Zone devote their lives to escaping, others refuse to believe that not working makes one deserve the treatment of a diseased rat, and are teaching alternative possibilities of thought in makeshift schools – moving beyond the ability to work as the only means of living.

Many of those in the Zone are unaware of what awaits lottery winners – they assume it’s the perfect life, but there’s a chance they are wrong. All they know is that if you work, you’re deemed a worthy human by 2/10ths of France’s population.

What’s so good about this take on the dystopian genre? I’ve seen Divergent I thru XXXIV? Maybe you should go back to school?

 

Authenticity. The show might take place in a distant century and function in an “advanced” society, but humans remain humans and their hearts aren’t any different to ours. The rules of the world are a breeze to learn, Plenty of scenes focus on a humanistic story, so you barely notice a moment of blatant exposition.

This story world feels lived in. The character’s plights are relatable and the acting is believable. Scientific and technological developments are integrated into the world, and are yet to steal focus from the human crux of every human scene.

It’s a brutal assessment of Europe’s unemployment crises/death of the middle class/and perhaps eventually a commentary on resources

 

At least, I think it is. I’m not much of a political or economic mind, but considering post-crash conundrums in EU countries such as Greece and Spain, Trepalium feels invested in the issue.

Its interpretation of a future society is… well… radical

 

I love Sci-Fi where the world feels like a logical progression from our own. It’s familiar, yet weaved with advances in technology and science and culture that come across as helpful or isolating, or both.

The show doesn’t point at these innovations, it lets them exist as they exist, whether in a close up, as a character’s prop, or an integrated aspect of the background we only ever catch in passing.

I'm hooked

Well done, France. If I spoke French I would write you an epic poem in French.

 

All 6 episodes of Trepalium are available on SBS On Demand. They also air on Mondays at 11pm (AEST) on SBS.

Watch the first episode right now: