April 2 (Bloomberg) -- Meet Munster, Mad Charlie and The Russian, as they murder and traffic drugs in Australia's hottest new crime drama. This is ``The Sopranos'' with a twist -- the villains are real and the show is banned in its home state.
"Underbelly'' has a court-imposed blackout in Victoria to avoid prejudicing a murder trial in the capital, Melbourne, that started this week. The ban hasn't thwarted viewers there who use illegal downloads and DVDs to watch the top-rated series as it works toward a May 7 climax.
The TV serial tracks the feud between Carl Williams and brothers Jason and Mark Moran, former allies in Melbourne's illegal drug trade, who clashed over money, leading to a string of murders that shocked the city during a 10-year battle with organized crime.
"A good story is a good story and the mafia make for a good story -- just look at the success of "The Sopranos,''' said Jason Sternberg, a lecturer in media and communications at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. "We as a culture are fascinated with that type of criminal element and it probably goes back to our convict past.''
Williams, who survived being shot by the brothers in 1999, was convicted last year of killing Mark Moran, his father and a third man. He was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail. Justice Betty King ordered the state-wide ban on the show until the completion of the new murder trial that involves an unnamed person depicted in the show.
Viewers are drawing parallels with the Emmy Award-winning "Sopranos,'' which starred James Gandolfini as head of a New Jersey crime family. ``Underbelly'' features a cast of characters with nicknames to rival the fictional Paulie Walnuts, Uncle Junior and Big Pussy in "The Sopranos.'' Melbourne locales such as Carlton and Brunswick play a prominent role.
The Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia's second-most populous state, banned Nine network from broadcasting the 13- part series in the state as well as putting episodes on the Internet. Details of the characters have also been removed from the network's Web site. The court-imposed blackout was affirmed on appeal March 25.
"Everybody at work has copies of the first few episodes that they're passing around,'' said Scott Howard, a Melbourne resident. "At first I wasn't that fussed about it, but now that I've heard all this word of mouth about how good it is, I want to secure myself a copy.''
"Underbelly'' has been the most popular Australian drama of the year, winning its timeslot each week. The show has attracted an average audience of 1.25 million for each episode. It's based on "Leadbelly,'' a book by John Silvester and Andrew Rule, reporters at Melbourne's Age newspaper.
"Melbourne is a big city but a small town,'' Rule wrote in the Age last month. "Hundreds of people know -- or knew -- players in the underworld war. Plenty more think they do.''