THE YEAR WE FOUND OUR VOICE
Locally made drama and comedy led the way during the 2007 ratings season, writes Graeme Blundell
‘ INOTE that the Nobel prize has never been won by a TV executive,’’ comedian John Clarke said recently. ‘‘ Television, in my experience, is run by people who think they are clever operating a medium for a large audience of stupid people, when the reverse is true.’’
Well those carpet- strollers were this year confronted, and confounded in some cases, by the fact the best and most popular shows were local.
The year also proved the ‘‘ big television is not dead’’ Pollyannas to be partially correct. But TVby- appointment is fading fast and access is fragmenting. There are children being born who will never know what the mahogany box their parents called ‘‘ the TV’’ looked like.
But as the internet became more pervasive we still spent the year enjoying the wit, humour and, in some cases, brilliant storytelling of our writers, producers and directors.
There’s little doubt the speedier, snappier, TVrooted sensibility has taken the artistic high ground, its energetic storytelling and style leaving the local film industry in the rear- vision mirror.
Pay- TV channel Showtime aired a third series of Love My Way early in the year, still dealing uncomfortably with the rhythms and complexities of extended families and the unlovely spaces of contemporary relationships, and as distinguished as ever. No show so clearly identified the disjunction between Australia’s secular culture and the conservative social agenda and religious rhetoric of John Howard’s neo- conservatism.
More aggressively contentious was the ABC’s Bastard Boys . Ray Quint’s account of the 1998 political battle for Australia’s waterfront was compelling TV made with compassion and objectivity. Sue Smith’s script was thriller, war epic, buddy movie and courtroom drama rolled into one and a reminder of the sheer power of intelligent character- driven drama.
Geoff Morrell’s portrayal of waterfront boss Chris Corrigan was the year’s stand- out performance. Stephen Curry’s Graham Kennedy in The King , TV1’ s much anticipated movie biography from Crackerjack Productions, was also riveting. Curry was terrific and while instantly recognisable as the oyster- eyed performer, he didn’t impersonate him ( though he says he tested prosthetic eyes) so much as inhabit him.
Seven’s City Homicide , the character- based ensemble cop drama exploring tightly knit tales of depressingly squalid but resonant events, arrived stylishly mid- year with a strong cast including the happily ubiquitous Shane Bourne.
Created and written by John Banas and John Hugginson, the writing team behind Blue Heelers and Water Rats , the new show became part of our lives quickly and idiosyncratically, the way the original Crawfords’ Homicide , with its pork- pie hat wearing cops, did 40 years ago.
SBS provided classy drama, too, in The Circuit , a six- parter that travelled in a layer of fine red dust exploring the hardships and issues faced by remote indigenous people in the Kimberley, especially alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the sexual persecution of the young.
The series appealed to an almost insatiable consumer fascination for legal theatre, highlighted by Catriona McKenzie’s visceral direction and piercing sense of place.
Peter Andrikidis’s direction has also been outstanding in East West 101 , SBS’s seductive, highly intelligent and often abrasive new generic procedural six- part police series. Andrikidis, and his cameraman Joe Pickering ( who also shot episodes of The Circuit ), have presented a more cinematic crime show than seen locally before.
SBS graciously offered the best documentary series, Great Australian Albums , from producer Martin Fabinyi, a classy exploration of the creation of four Australian masterpieces across four decades. Fabinyi mixed observational documentary practice with archival footage, homevideo material and artfully shot interviews ( sumptuous photography by Simon Chapman) with the bands and those creatively connected with their music.
And, like all good rock docos, Great Australian Albums brought together documentary’s traditional focus on actuality and the fictional cinema’s emphasis on stars, spectacle, conflict and pain. It was my favourite piece of TV this year; although I also found Foxtel’s s Thanks for Listening , a captivating and definitive documentary look at radio in Australia, a nostalgic delight.
The withering irony and intellectual mischievousness of Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High was the stand- out of the year’s scripted comedy, notwithstanding the outrageousness of The Chaser ’ s media jamming. ( Or the undiminished outrageousness and good fun of Kath & Kim, which survived the transition to the Seven Network, humour intact.) Lilley’s talent displays an appealing and lethal maturity, his creations ransacking popular culture which he fuses into his own illuminating, epigrammatic style.
Lilley works off similar themes to those in Ricky Gervais’s The Office , in particular social faux pas, taboos, frustrations, desperation, ego, and the awkwardness of social situations. But in Summer Heights High Lilley went back to school, mercilessly sending up pretension, intellectual vanity, political correctness and do- goodism.
He captured some of the wonder and most of the horror of life in the contemporary publicschool system, a foreign continent of coruscating slang, brutal bullying, profanity, delusional teachers, recalcitrant students, racism, homophobia and crushed innocence. Lilley is pure comic spirit, angry, impish and articulate.
Less angry but equally funny was Ten’s Thank God You’re Here , watched by almost two million Australians on Wednesday nights for most of the
year. It was a comedy show founded on the simple idea of a bunch of well- known actors walking through an ominous blue stage door into an improvised scene before a rowdy live audience.
This kind of impulsive humour represented a charming attempt to recapture, if fleetingly, that childhood state of spontaneity when an appetite for laughter is not subservient to what’s right or proper. It didn’t always work and sometimes you had to wait for the magic lightning strikes. But when it exploded this was TV at its most creative.
The unbridled success of the local product this year was a delightful slap in the head for the TV executives who continue to treat their audiences with disdain. I hate the way programs are allowed to run over time, or just turn out to be repeats. And those unwanted in- program commercial logos, promotions and excessive branding symbols are materialising more brazenly on our TV screens, a constant expression of condescension.
Hunter S. Thompson once called TV ‘‘ a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free’’, but at least this year some of our creative loonies found a few hours to entertain us when the bad guys’ backs were turned.
Successes: Clockwise from top left, Stephen Curry in The King ; Tom Gleisner and Shane Bourne in Thank God You’re Here ; Chris Lilley as Ja’mie in Summer Heights High ; Kath & Kim cast with Little Britain s Matt Lucas; Lilley as Ja’mie; and the Chaser team