Operation Buffalo: A Tough Call Between 5-star and 1-star 


R E V I E W – S E R I E S


Lamia Karim


In most cases, I avoid going through Google user reviews since I already have a somewhat defining image of what an opinionated Google user looks like, as my own dad is one of the people who actively contribute to providing various of these ratings during his free time. However, googling for Operation Buffalo was an interesting exception. 

Its audience seems to be torn to the extremities the 5-star half who absolutely love it and the 1-star half who calls it a complete waste of the taxpayers’ money, and wants it to be taken down. The polarity of these ratings was what prompted me to read other reviews of the show and ultimately cave in to watch it for myself. And I finally have an explanation for why the show has a similar proportion of people who like it as to those who don’t. 

Operation Buffalo is a historical fiction inspired by the events that took place in Australia during the atomic age. Stretching over 6 episodes, the series was directed by Peter Duncan and broadcasted on ABC TV from 31 May, 2020.

The show follows Major Leo Carmichael, an Australian Army engineer, who is in charge of a secret base in Maralinga in South Australia where the British are performing four nuclear bomb tests codenamed Operation Buffalo. Each episode starts off with displaying the following line “This is a work of historical fiction… But a lot of the really bad history actually happened” which conveniently sums up what you’re about to dip your toes into.

This particular period, between 1956 and 1963, when nuclear tests were being conducted in Maralinga is, and I quote, “A shameful period in the Australian history.” The reason behind this, is the way the federal government manipulated its people to ultimately carry out these activities. The land that was being bombed was not properly surveyed, which affected the lives of many Aboriginal people inhabiting the area. The government fabricated information about how harmful these tests were, not just from Aboriginal people but from all the country’s population who were prone to radiation sickness from the very air they breathed in. As a result, the news of these events was swept under the rug and not even the Aussies know much about this significant segment of their history, much less the international mass. 

However, Operation Buffalo is by no means a documentary (which was probably made obvious by how many times I used the term ‘historical fiction’); which is where the backlash comes in. The events surrounding Maralinga are sensitive and much like the usual form of criticism any sort of historical fiction receives the modifications made to some occurrences in order to create a narrative out of it, and the lack of historical accuracy come off as overtly disrespectful to some viewers. 

However, people are forgetting that it is supposed to be a historical fiction at its core. And in my opinion, it pulls off the genre quite well. It takes the approach of a satirical dramedy and shows the absolute nonchalance of the people during that era and the brutal way they ignored the greater good for the sake of politics and hedonism. Of course, a general officer indulging in a hearty feast for the night, and then casually discussing hiding the fact that indigenous people will be caught in the blast radius during the morning — is not supposed to be a comfortable thing to watch. 

This sort of thematic approach, however, is so very powerful that this is where the show shines the most. The series would sync the whimsy and almost cartoon-ish title theme to very serious moments in the story, which makes the situation tenfold the more disturbing, and you’re left feeling uneasy, questioning the characters’ moral standpoints. 

The story progression is fast. Objectively, too fast, sometimes leaving you perplexed and wondering if you missed a joke or a piece of important information. Yet, this sort of pacing fits the story very well.

Now, a lot of people failed to comprehend this satirical approach that Peter Duncan took for this series and gave it a 1-star without a second thought. 

Peter Duncan’s unique and almost risky method of quickly switching between grim to light-hearted scenes works surprisingly well, too. Besides making the story progress swiftly, this method amplifies the thoughtless tendencies of the people who assumed power during the cold war. The storyline truly feels like a war as short-lived moments of euphoria and despair mix into each other. 

The other thing that Operation Buffalo does is to try to address a lot of other issues aside from political intrigue. It brings in topics regarding morality, depression, existentialism, going as far as involving sexuality and polyamory, and jam-packs it all into a part-comedy, part-farce narrative by bringing out stories of all these different characters on the military base of Maralinga. This proves to be better than a documentary since it effectively reaches the appeal of a wider audience and introduces them to this interesting period of shrouded Australian history.

However, this is where I stand with my fellow 1-star reviewers who seem to be right about a few things that they complained about. The show takes its farce elements to the extreme as the story advances, especially during the last 3 episodes. The plot seems to stray away from its focal point at Maralinga, and gradually loses its purpose only to loosely tie itself together at the very end which ultimately comes off as a tad bit disrespectful and chaotic.

Dismissing these lackings, the show makes you laugh occasionally and think frequently. It’s by no means deserving of a 1-star and definitely not 5-stars either. It is average. That said, being average doesn’t make it any less effective and entertaining. For once it made me spend my time educating myself about the procedures and ethics behind nuclear testing, and made it clear for once and for all that I really should be avoiding Google user reviews with all my might. 

 


Lamia is always striving to write an absolute bomb article. Let her know if this one was disastrous or not at [email protected]

 

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