Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
In the simplest terms, “Rūrangi” is the story of Caz Davis (played by Elz Carrad), a transgender activist who returns to the small, rural town where he grew up. Ten years after disappearing to Auckland, he finds that his hometown of Rūrangi is not quite how he left it.
But despite a run-time of just 3 hours total across its first two seasons, the story this New Zealand drama tells is far from simple. Caz is the main character, but the show spends just as much time and care on its small but mighty supporting cast. Caz’s father, Gerald (played by Kirk Torrance and Cohen Holloway), is a dairy farmer who turns to environmental activism after his wife dies of cancer. Caz’s childhood best friend, Anahera (Awhina-Rose Ashby), is a queer Maori woman who is struggling to reconnect with her community and overcome her family’s past. And Caz’s return causes his high school boyfriend, Jem (played by Arlo Green and Liam Coleman), to wrestle with his own sexuality and role in his hyper-masculine farming community.
The Daily Yonder has published a number of stories about the importance of telling queer stories in rural communities, as well as the challenges that rural LGBTQ youth and adults still face. “Rūrangi” addresses these issues head-on, offering a stellar example of media by and about queer people.
“We’re not interested in seeing another story told about us, any more transition stories, trauma or tropes. These are so often about how other people see us, how other people experience us,” writes Cole Meyers, a co-producer and series writer of “Rūrangi.” “We want to see stories on screen made by us — the authenticity of our voices, the wholeness of our lives, and the way we truly experience ourselves.”
“Rūrangi” fulfills this goal with grace, kindness, and humor. Far from biting off more than it can chew, the show chomps steadily through a menu of issues, including gender identity and sexuality; the sustaining of Maori cultural traditions, language, and community; New Zealand’s colonial past and present; environmental issues and consolidated agriculture; suicide and mental health care; and the good, bad, and ugly of small-town relationships.
There and Back Again
The show centers around the titular Rūrangi, a fictional remote town sustained by New Zealand’s dairy industry. Caz left Rūrangi 10 years prior to the events of the show, certain that neither his family nor community would accept his true identity. This is a familiar narrative for rural queer people, who often seek out LGBTQ communities in larger cities, but it is also a trope that can erase a long history of vibrant queer life in rural places. The juxtaposition between dynamic, accepting metropolis and backwards, stagnant rural towns is a cliché that is inaccurate as it is annoying. But “Rūrangi” deftly avoids falling into this trap, as the small town defies Caz’s (and some viewers’) expectations.
This isn’t to say the show depicts Rūrangi as a rural queer utopia — homophobic and transphobic characters have plenty to say, and many in the community, Caz’s father included, admit to having a great deal of learning to do. Rūrangi is certainly not Auckland, where Caz belongs to a large community of trans and gay activists and works with queer youth. But as Caz soon learns, Rūrangi is far from devoid of queer life. His best friend, Anahera, has been out as a lesbian for years, and his high-school boyfriend, Jem, is also questioning his sexuality. Most importantly, Caz comes to know a group of queer teenagers who are living a life in Rūrangi that he felt wasn’t possible for him at their age.
Mentoring this group of teens helps Caz find a sense of purpose and belonging in Rūrangi and face the pain he felt there. This is fitting, as the show is fundamentally about healing relationships and righting wrongs between people, communities, and even the environment. Anahera, Jem, and Gerald were each wounded by Caz’s unannounced departure from Rūrangi a decade past, a hurt that must be addressed as bonds are rebuilt. Community healing is also a focus, as Anahera attempts to strengthen her bond with her Maori community and Gerald leads a fight against the toxic pesticides that are harmful to both the land and the health of Rūrangi’s dairy farmers.
The Long and Short of It
With two seasons completed (both now available in the U.S. on Hulu), “Rūrangi” feels like it is only just getting started. Unlike traditional shows built around season arcs, “Rūrangi’s” first two seasons — each just five episodes long — feel like uninterrupted installments of the same movie. And with season 2 ending the way it does (you’ll have to watch to find out!) there better be a third season.
The show packs a lot into its short, 20-minute episodes, but the pace never feels frenzied. Long shots of the agrarian New Zealand countryside punctuate emotionally-packed performances from a truly phenomenal cast. Though the effort to tackle a wide range of topics can sometimes result in a ‘preachy’ tone, the thoughtfulness of the showrunners’ approach largely dispels those concerns. The result is a TV drama that is as educational as it is beautiful, and tells a powerful rural story of love, forgiveness, and growth.
Rūrangi is streaming on Hulu.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.