Take con­trol of the re­mote and you will find plenty of pleas­ing TV en­ter­tain­ment dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

Graeme Blun­dell

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

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