Humps and bumps on Serangoon Road

HBO meets pre-republic Singapore?

The mind races. Are we going to get the sex and violence of Game Of Thrones wrapped in singlets and cheongsams?

Nope. Serangoon Road - the first original drama series from HBO Asia - is pretty PG (despite being Rated 16). Well, there is one expletive in the first episode, thanks to Alaric Tay.

But after watching his acting, I was spitting profanities too.

Serangoon Road centres on a private detective, Sam Callaghan - great semi- Marlowe name there - played by Don Hany.

He's ex-military, the son of an Australian officer but has lived in Singapore his entire life. He even spent time in Changi prison.

He's got his demons (including a thing for opium). These manifest by giving him a perma-scowl. His expression is a mix of disgust and disappointment.

Very similar to a man who's just discovered that the cat used his shoes as a toilet.

But he's the classic gumshoe. Friends in low places, knows everyone's dirty secrets and keeps a few himself. Not least that he's sleeping with the wife of an Australian executive.

He also has - it has to be said - anachronistic hair. It's a very shaggy do for 1964.

But rather impressively, it's one of the few things out of place in this period drama.

Okay, one jeep's roll cage looks too modern. And was the term "lap dance" around back then? But okay, it's not like there's a hawker with an iPod.

They're not as jarring as some of the acting.

Joan Chen plays Callaghan's boss Patricia Cheng who, going off Chen's portrayal, is trying out a variety of accents.

I was ready to give up on much of the cast's lack of acting ability. That was until Chin Han appeared.

During his first scene he says at most ten words, spread over two sentences. And he is awesome.

He blows the entire cast off the screen. Like Robert DeNiro starring in your kid's school play.

The same goes for Lim Kay Tong, who plays Chin Han's gangster chief dad. Barely says a word, utterly commands the scene.

We need to see more of them. Hey, they deserve a spin-off.

So given that, a message to Alaric Tay. To paraphrase the slogan, it's not Channel 5, it's HBO.

Tay plays Callaghan's business partner, Kang. He suffers from the local TV method that confuses emphasising with acting.

But some of the actors suffer from the script. Take Pamelyn Chee's Su Ling. The writers dump so much exposition on her character, she may as well be the narrator.

Serangoon Road is not a terrible show, it's just some bits are laughable in a perversely entertaining way.

It passes the time quite nicely. But then nice is both a positive and a negative.

Considering it involves the CIA, secret societies, affairs and murder, it's far more gentle than you'd expect - or want - from the HBO brand.

If it had more edge and pace, it could be essential viewing, even without a Thronesstyle budget or approach to gore and nudity.

It's an achievable change.

But given that it's set in 1964, and Singapore gains independence in 1965, it will be interesting to see how they handle it.

That's if this look at the past has a future.

Catch the second episode of Serangoon Road at 9pm tonight on HBO (Channel 601) and HBO HD (Channel 605)


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