THOUGH it opens with all the familiar riffs of the Underbelly franchise - the theme song, Caroline Craig's narration - it isn't long before Underbelly: Badness begins to define itself as a step apart from its predecessors.
It runs for a frugal eight episodes, not the 13 of past seasons, and within moments it dials up the gore. This isn't Saw, but for a moment it looks as though it's one meat-hook away from I Know What You Did Last Summer.
It is also the first Underbelly instalment to feature a real cop as its hero, detective sergeant Gary Jubelin (Matt Nable). Previous iterations have tended to combine several police investigators into fictional amalgams.
Perhaps the most striking difference, however, is a lack of bare breasts. Thankfully a bikini-clad pole-dancer turns up in the 26th minute but even she somehow keeps her top on. For a series that some have affectionately nicknamed Underbooby, that's almost unprecedented.
The title, Underbelly: Badness, though uninformatively simple, takes us straight to the heart of the story. Anthony John Michael Perish (Jonathan LaPaglia) is an elusive figure, a charismatic, ruthless killer whose only mistake, teases the show, was crossing Jubelin. It would take a decade to bring Perish to justice for the murder in 2001 of convicted drug dealer Terry Falconer, whose dismembered body was found in the Hastings River.
''The producers really don't know a lot about this guy - there's no information, there's no video footage or audio, we had no access to family or friends or his legal counsel,'' LaPaglia says.
''The character was thin on the page [so] they were hoping that whoever took it on would help fill it out, which was exciting and daunting at the same time.''
LaPaglia, though born and raised in Adelaide, has spent most of his career based in the US. He was initially offered the chance to read for the role of Jubelin but the producers came back to him and asked him how he felt about playing the bad guy. ''I guess as an actor, a lot of us are masochists, we throw ourselves in there for a challenge but also the opportunity to play a bad guy appeals to most actors, to play someone who's really outside who I am.''
In a sense, LaPaglia owed a debt of gratitude to the critically acclaimed ABC drama The Slap. It was that series that put him on the radar of Australian producers. ''Obviously, I did things arse-backwards,'' he says. ''Most people start themselves here and then go [to the US]. I ended up doing it the other way. It wasn't by design, it was just the way things panned out. I wanted to come back and do something but being the lazy actor I am, I never did anything about it. I was incredibly lucky The Slap came across my desk.''
When he was offered the role in Underbelly: Badness, he had seen only the first series of Underbelly, courtesy of his agent, who had sent it to him in the US on DVD. ''I was riveted to it,'' he says. ''I watched them back-to-back. It took me a day and a half. I couldn't stop watching it.''
The original Underbelly worked, LaPaglia says, because of its power as a drama. ''I didn't feel location-specific to me, it felt like it was good, raw, gritty drama. It felt like it really didn't have the sugar coating that a lot of network TV can have. I found that exciting. There were great performances, a great story; I found the whole thing quite compelling.''
Accustomed to the relatively leisurely pace of US TV drama production, LaPaglia says filming one episode in six-and-a-half days was ''ridiculously fast''. There were times, he concedes, when the actors felt the pressure of that pace. ''There were moments when all of us really wished we had more time to finesse something [but] the flip-side is the pace brings a certain energy to the production, which I think ends up on screen. It's an exciting way to do it.''
The biggest challenge, he says, was finding the character using the fragments of information available. ''Personally, I like to keep things as accurate as possible, especially when you're playing a real person, in a story which is very current.'' (Anthony Perish was only sentenced in April, along with his brother, Andrew, and another man, Matthew Lawton.)
''As an actor I would have loved to have access to him on some level and to try and honour that but the more I delved into the story, I started to realise because it's so current, it is a legal minefield, particularly for the producers. In retrospect it was probably better that we didn't have much on this guy, we were really left to our own devices. So it is a true dramatisation of who this guy is. Certain events we know from the court transcripts but who he really is, we're really guessing.''
How that sits with Underbelly as a piece of ''true crime'' drama is hard to measure and the question gives LaPaglia pause. The show's publicist, who is sitting in on the interview, elects to answer on his behalf.
''The producers of Underbelly have always been up front in stating that it is supposed to be a dramatisation,'' she says. ''They're never setting out to depict things in a totally factual sense. It is not supposed to be a documentary representation.''
LaPaglia, after some consideration, says he isn't sure there is a promise to keep the story factual. ''There are certain events that are public knowledge and we've adhered to those, but the rest of it is a dramatisation to try and tell an overall story. I don't think anyone should be upset it if it's not 100 per cent totally accurate.''
Someone should tell that to the marketing people. Underbelly: Badness is selling itself as ''sex, drugs, rock'n'roll … and murder … and it's all true.''
Nine, Monday August 13, 8.30pm