Take control of the remote and you will find plenty of pleasing TV entertainment during the summer holidays
IT has been a breathless, sometimes chaotic year in television but more shows than may have been expected found ways to satisfy the popular id. There were random bursts of stupefaction this year (can anybody recall Ten’s The Shire, Everybody Dance Now or I Will Survive without hypnosis?), alleviated by far more moments of astonishment than we perhaps had hoped for, especially from the ABC. The year marked a return to high-quality drama for Aunty, after several rather ostentatiously grim ones; exit stage left, to cheers.
The telemovies Mabo, Dangerous Remedy and Devil’s Dust were unfailingly skilful and convincing, and Richard Roxburgh’s Rake, even more engaging in its second season. But the real surprise was Redfern Now, the series developed by British writer Jimmy McGovern. On every production level its often moving six episodes were beautifully realised by the drama’s indigenous writers, directors and actors, a triumph of hard authenticity over easy melodrama.
The ABC comedies arrived halfway through the year. There was The Strange Calls, in which Barry Crocker reminded us of his comic ability in a fine double act with Toby Truslove. You get the sense that Crocker, who has trouped the whistlestops of show business indefatigably for decades, never wants to leave the stage. The sleeper of the year was A Moody Christmas, the sharply observed ABC comedy about a fractured extended family battling to get through the most sentimental time of the year. The series was created by Trent O’Donnell and Phil Lloyd, the multi-AFI award-winning team behind the critically acclaimed Review with Myles Barlow.
This high-quality output, a golden period for local storytelling, has justified the ABC’s practice of centralising its television production in Sydney and Melbourne, and the way its programmers continue to outsource more production to the private sector. We can lift a glass or two to that at the start of the summer season and stop whingeing about it.
TV slows down from now until early next year, the commercial free-to-air networks seemingly exhausted, though that idea requires a coast-to-coast suspension of disbelief. Unlike the ABC and SBS, the other freeto-air networks don’t seem to care enough about us to keep their audience entertained across the summer, when ratings are not an issue. (Pay-TV carrier Foxtel’s executive director of television Brian Walsh, overseeing a bounteous summer season, likes to say about the commercial stations, ‘‘ Other television networks just want to switch on the Christmas lights at this time of the year.’’)
Recent surveys show reports of depression spike during the holiday months. Perhaps the nudge that helps the onset of the so-called ‘‘ holiday blues’’ may just be the lack of entertainment offered by our free-to-air commercial TV networks. This is knowingly characterised in the industry as ‘‘ zombie programming’’.
This summer is not one of hype and hope the way the past couple were, with shows ripped out of context and chronology and celebrated as ‘‘ new episodes’’, and others already dead in the ratings retrieved and recycled as new.
There is a bit of that, but most free-to-air commercial programming seems lifeless, and full of repeats. How advertisers maintain any trust in TV is one of popular culture’s great mysteries when shows — most of which have already failed — are shifted so abruptly and sometimes so bizarrely into the one season of the year when we have time to watch more frequently. Why do they continue to treat us like idiots?
Even Seven, so competitive and assertive last summer, is offering little that’s new. It will rely on the tennis, the way Nine is already relying on the cricket. That’s fine with me; both provide perfect diversions through January when we loll about relaxing with white wine and gin and tonics. Watching Nine’s cricket, especially, runs in the blood of many of us, summer’s ritual viewing, this year the network’s 36th of broadcasting the game.
No, for full-on summer viewing — as we have for the past several years if we don’t subscribe to pay-TV — we turn to the ABC and, a little surprisingly, to SBS.
As it did last year, SBS presents a strong summer slate, determined to pick up viewers while the commercial free-to-air stations slip into disdainful recess. Following on from the success of landmark documentary series First Australians and Immigration Nation, the public broadcaster gives us the next chapter in the story, Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia. These days digging for stuff is continually at the centre of the national debate: the quality of ore is diminishing, the environmental cost of taking minerals out of the ground is increasing, and the Chinese want what’s left of our below-ground assets.
As a Melbourne teenager I loved Ion Idriess’s books about the seeking of instant mining fortunes in the outback and my family often had picnics in places where my father said mad, brave men once looked for gold. For many of us growing up in dull suburbia, the topography of isolated mining towns, pockmarked with holes, symbolised a landscape of the mind, paradoxically inhabited by saints as well as sinners whose avarice knew no bounds.
The new three-part SBS series promises a look at the way mining has sparked mass migration yet ignited race riots; and toppled prime ministers yet laid the foundation for modern democracy. It also has wrenched land away from Aborigines yet provides perhaps the best hope for the future of many indigenous communities.
SBS also has Coppers, the well-reviewed, sometimes controversial factual series from Britain which, as budgets are cut and recruitment numbers dwindle, reveals what police
place of drug addiction, illicit lust and murder. Just the thing to contemplate after a week with relatives.
Then there’s the return of The Hour, a second season of this lavish, stylish and seductive conspiracy thriller set at the BBC in the late 1950s and starring Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai. England is a country fuelled by paranoia and espionage, overrun with agents and counter-agents; it’s also the very early days of TV journalism.
The second series comes to us as the contemporary BBC is engulfed in scandal, management failures and off-kilter journalism. The new season also sees producers grappling with ethics and news management, but there are probably fewer government spies hanging around the BBC today. Reassuringly, writer Abi Morgan has chosen not to mess too much with The Hour’s successful formula. Again, the series is smartly realised and crafted, the camerawork stylish, each shot a composition to be studied. There’s a languorous gorgeousness about the mise en scene that inevitably suggests Mad Men.
Not unexpectedly, pay-TV does not disappoint either. Summer is when it comes into its own. Remorselessly competitive these days, in the past few years it has lifted its game across the summer with countless programming options. This year it promises, in a nice line, ‘‘ a show for every taste, any mood and for each room in the house’’.
It’s no hollow pledge. There are first-run international dramas, top-rating reality, factual and lifestyle programming, and exclusive Australian productions — with plenty of sport, documentaries and live music festivals thrown into the mix.
Foxtel launches two new and exclusive dramas; both sound enticing. The Carrie
Diaries (Tuesday, January 15, 8.30pm, Fox 8), the anticipated prequel to Sex and the City, explores the teen years of modern femme television personality Carrie Bradshaw — before she became synonymous with single women’s dating disasters, love and the love of shoes. Based on the novels The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City by Candace Bushnell, the series introduces us to a 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw: pre-Mr Big, pre-closet full of designer clothes and pre newspaper column on sex.
Also on Fox 8 is Chicago Fire, starring Australia’s Jesse Spencer and produced by Emmy award-winning executive producer Dick Wolf, of Law & Order fame. According to The
New York Times, the new series takes Wolf’s signature fast-paced realism (or what he calls
trompe l’oeil cinema verite’’) outside New York to a Chicago firehouse. It’s an ensemble drama pitched to US network NBC as ‘‘ E.R. in a firehouse’’ and, as is the fashion, it has continuing story-lines.
It seems there’s the fallout from a paramedic’s accidentally plunging a needle through a girl’s heart and a rookie’s adaptation to life in the firehouse. But each episode also has plots neatly resolved after 42 minutes; Wolf does like wrapping stuff up too (Thursday, January 10, 8.30pm).
So there’s plenty to watch this summer; there always is. You just have to take the time to look for it and take control of the remote. If you do, you’ll find that across this summer TV will offer itself as a hospitable friend and will smile enthusiastically and shuffle for your favour. officers across England really think about being on the frontline of their country in the 21st century. Coppers captures the reality of the job: from the riot police who face serious public disorder on the streets, to the traffic cops picking up the pieces after accidents.
But, best of all, SBS has the much anticipated Prisoners of War. This Israeli-made series was the drama on which the US hit show
Homeland was based, and from all accounts it is just as addictive. The original show revolves around the lives of three Israeli defence force reservists who are captured during service in Lebanon. Their fate initially is unknown and they become symbols to their society. In their families they are perceived as something between a misty memory and an everlasting glimmer of hope — until the day 17 years later when they return. Two come back alive; the third returns in a coffin. Gideon Raff, the show’s creator, told the Los
Angeles Times that his research revealed conflicting and complex issues. One soldier released in a prisoner exchange deal told him that for years people blamed him for every terrorist attack that took place after the swap. Another Israeli PoW said bitterly that Israel prefered dead heroes to live returnees.
From all accounts, Prisoners of War is more an intense domestic drama of life after captivity than Homeland, which, of course, is a relentlessly paced, post-Osama bin Laden psychological thriller. ‘‘
ABC1 has a great line-up of specials airing in the next few days, including Carols from St Peters Cathedral in Adelaide (Monday, 6pm),
Last Night of the Proms (also Monday at
10.05pm) and the Doctor Who Christmas
Special (Boxing Day, 7.30pm). But two dramas are the highlight for the ABC’s prime channel, though the second
season of Upstairs Downstairs (Sunday, January 6, 9.30pm) also will be required viewing, the jug of Pimms well within reach.
I’ll certainly also be there, a glass of something stronger in hand, for the BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of
Edwin Drood. The 142-year-old tale of drug addiction and sexual obsession (the first instalment was published in 1870; tragically, Dickens died before the novel’s completion) has been adapted for the small screen by acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes ( Miss
Austen Regrets, Silent Witness).
Hughes calls it ‘‘ a tantalising network of puzzles’’, an example of the way Dickens loved
‘‘ observation and digression and wonderful oxbow lakes of inspired daftness’’. It is also a thriller, of course, and Hughes invites us to enter a darker, stranger world, a shadowy
Left, Matthew Rhys, Tamzin Merchant and Freddie Fox in The Mystery of Edwin Drood; above, a scene from Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia