From soaps to art house: Andrew Mercado reviews six months of Aussie drama

Andrew Mercado reviews six months of Aussie drama and looks forward to ABC TV’s Glitch from Matchbox Pictures

By Andrew Mercado

So the worst-kept secret in Aussie TV drama is out now that Brax has finally left Home and Away. “Killed” screamed the headline on TV Week’s front cover, although closer inspection revealed he was only “missing presumed dead” which all soap fans know leaves the door open for a possible return one day (especially if the Hollywood career doesn’t pan out for Stephen Peacocke). It’s the end of an era with no (original) River Boys left and rushing to fill the gap are three more and much more diverse Brennan brothers on Neighbours. There’s a good cop, a dodgy crim and now a gay stripper. For a G-rated show, Neighbours has an astonishing number of gay regulars and stories but there is still no gay in Summer Bay. Imagine the impact and storyline possibilities if one of those oh-so-macho bad boys on Home and Away took advantage of their PG rating, put down the guns and drugs and came out of the closet instead?

Love Child’s second season is doing well for Nine as the show moves from the 1960s into 1970. But no matter what era it delves into, the re-creation is always a tad cartoonish. John Edwards’ period productions (Howzat, Puberty Blues, Paper Giants) look authentic but Love Child, despite a fine cast and good intentions, always looks like it’s being filmed on a backlot (which it actually is, Sydney’s Fox backlot, to be precise).

Catching Milat was a huge ratings hit for Seven and deservedly so. It was gripping from start to finish and Malcolm Kennard was brilliantly creepy in the lead role. It’s hard to out-creep a real-life serial killer but Pamela Rabe comes very close with her portrayal of Joan “The Freak” Ferguson on Wentworth. The germ-phobic anal retentive control freak Governor has sunk to new lows this year, egging on a prisoner to stab herself in the eye and doing nothing to prevent Vinegar Tits being deliberately infected with hepatitis. Wentworth has been building towards its mega season finale that looks like being a nod to the Great Fire of 1982 in Prisoner.

If Bea Smith ever does manage to get The Freak six feet under, I suspect her dreaded foe would still emerge phoenix-like from the dirt. And that’s exactly how ABC’s enthralling new drama Glitch (July 9) begins as several dirt-covered bodies rise from the dead in a country cemetery. Despite The Returned (France) and Resurrection (America) covering similar ground, this Aussie effort proves the genre is a long way from getting tired and after previewing the truly bizarre first two episodes, I am hanging out to see what happens next.

Meanwhile who thought it would be a good idea to screen Banished months ago in the UK before premiering it, finally, in Australia this month? One of BBC First’s big claims was that Foxtel viewers would get to see shows fast-tracked but instead their first local production arrives with a stain worse than a convict past – it’s already been axed. Unless there’s an alternative ending somewhere that might wrap up the story for Aussie fans, its British fans tell me it ends up in the air with a cliffhanger.

“ABC’s dramas are still the best,
Seven’s real-life miniseries resonate
with viewers and Ten is still trying to
figure out whether or not
to renew Wonderland.”

Banished is written by Jimmy McGovern, the genius English creator behind Cracker, The Lakes and The Street. He did an absolutely smashing job mentoring the indigenous writers on Redfern Now, demanding over and over again that television drama is all about story, story, story. The story of Banished is based on the first two weeks of British settlement in Australia and when I say based, I mean loosely based. Very loosely based. Actual history has been totally banished in the name of story, story, story and it’s incredibly disconcerting. Having watched four episodes, I still can’t decide if it’s a triumph or a travesty. As a drama, it draws you in but its stories and situations are so outrageous, you’re left wondering if anything in the series is based in truth.

Possibly because they weren’t overly familiar with Australian history, what irked some Brit critics the most is the absence of any Aboriginals. Now in Jimmy McGovern’s defence, he claims he wanted to tell specific stories about convicts and penal officers and didn’t want to include indigenous characters if he couldn’t do them justice. And we have had the benefit of seeing what magnificent drama came from the rich indigenous characters he helped create for Redfern Now. But whichever way you look at it, Banished isn’t telling the full story and neither is it telling it a real one.

Ironically, the interaction between white settlers and the Aboriginal people was entirely the point of the ABC’s stunning just-finished miniseries The Secret River. Based on the acclaimed Kate Grenville novel, it’s much more believable and benefits greatly from being filmed on location on the Hawkesbury River (unlike Banished which filmed in Manly Dam). Although Lachy Hulme, Tim Minchin and Genevieve Lemon are all superb, most of the heavy lifting is done by British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen and the extraordinary Sarah Snook playing the main couple who venture into the unknown in search of a better life.

As we hit the halfway mark in 2015, Aussie drama is pretty much at the same place it has been for the last few years. ABC’s dramas are still the best, Seven’s real-life miniseries resonate with viewers and Ten is still trying to figure out whether or not to renew Wonderland.

of Glitch will be available for streaming from ABC’s iview as soon as the first episode has screened on Thursday July 9. The Matchbox Pictures series was created by Tony Ayres and Louise Fox. Ayres and Ewan Burnett were EPs with Fox showrunner. Series director was Emma Freeman.


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