Graeme Blundell and your TV picks for summer
The paucity of watchable TV at this time of year is now a thing of the past
‘No holiday is ever anything but a disappointment,” Aldous Huxley wrote in Crome Yellow, and he might have been talking about summer television viewing, the season when we have more time to watch but there often seems to be nothing on.
The commercial networks disdainfully dump shows between the ratings months, “new episodes” of faltering series jettisoned in haste as they gear up for a sporting summer of big bashing cricket and big grunting tennis. This is knowingly characterised in the industry as zombie programming; no wonder people get the holiday blues (aka seasonal affective disorder) when there no TV to divert us.
This year, though, is different because, well, everything seems to be on — and available on countless screens and outlets. Streaming services have changed the landscape completely, offering vast libraries of movies, docos and TV shows of all kinds.
It’s even possible to watch a half-dozen shows more or less simultaneously, and if you want to play around after a day at the beach and the fourth gin and tonic, you can take control of montage and turn your TV receiver into a bottomless pit of footage. Of course, nearly all of it has been on before, much of it tucked away on Foxtel — it proves yet again there can never be a television future without a past.
On streaming service Netflix check out Small Time Gangster, the terrific local series from 2011, written with mischievous wit by Gareth Calverley and Andrew McInally, starring Steve Le Marquand and Gary Sweet, and directed with a cutting-edge sheen by Jeffrey Walker. It’s a grim but very funny comedy built around the clear boundaries that exist between criminality and respectability, and the way the transgressive energies of life at the margins are so segregated from mainstream Australian society. Perfect viewing after you see off fractious rellies.
Then, still trawling through Netflix, spend a few very laid-back hours with Weeds, the classic US comedy about a desperate housewife, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), who becomes a marijuana dealer to pay the bills, a show that was originally a critical success for cable channel Showtime. While displaying no discernible career skills, Nancy dutifully goes to her sons’ soccer matches, keeps an upscale house and Latina maid, displays an insatiable appetite for iced latte, Diet Coke and large glasses of red wine, and deals weed to make it possible.
Irresistible mind-altering comedy for the summer that will have you consorting with all kinds of stoners, jokers and crooks as you lounge back with a cold one.
Or, if you’re in the mood for some epistemological complexity after too many G&Ts, you could go back to the beginning of Lost — also in Netflix’s huge archive — which probably left you infuriatingly and wretchedly in the dark the first time around. Its complex and cryptic storyline and elaborate fractured narratives about a handful of plane crash survivors on a not-so-deserted island, will spawn numerous unresolved questions to keep you pondering until the sunburn fades away.
A recent offering from Presto, perkiest of the new streamers, is Parks and Recreation, the award-winning mockumentary set in the world of small-town politics and centred on a group of workers in the parks department of the fictional midwestern city of Pawnee. The luminous Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope, an ambitious small-town government worker, heading a cast of characters who are broad comic types as well as sincerely, often hopelessly inept, fully realised three-dimensional personalities.
It’s one for a long afternoon with a big jug of Pimm’s.
And Stan, the other major streaming service, has picked up the ABC’s Redfern Now, the first series to be written, directed and produced by indigenous Australians. It’s centred on a diverse group of individuals from six families whose lives are changed by a freakish or serendipitous occurrence. Each episode is like a beautifully constructed short story that goes straight to the fragile hearts of Redfern Now’s characters, without becoming sentimental or obdurately political. Intense viewing but profoundly rewarding on a late summer’s meditative evening.
The free-to-air networks’ programmers have been busy hyping their holiday viewing calendars as a crucial part of their schedule. In reality, discerning viewers who haven’t discovered the joys of streaming will turn to the ABC, SBS and pay TV.
SBS has boldly picked up The Missing (Wednesday, January 6, 8.30pm), the compelling BBC drama that grabbed Foxtel viewers earlier this year, a confronting story of a kidnapped five-year-old child, Oliver Hughes, and the insufferable strain that his disappearance places on his parents, Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor).
On a lighter note, famous for her trademark iridescent tops, the always cheerful Maeve O’Meara, who can say wow in so many languages, returns with Food Safari Fire (Thursday, January 7, 8pm) in a series celebrating the barbecue, wood-fired oven and spit roast.
SBS is also premiering The Family Law (Thursday, January 14, 8.30pm), an interestingsounding series from critically acclaimed writer Benjamin Law and adapted from his hit 2010 memoir of the same name. It’s the story of a quirky Chinese-Australian family on the Sunshine Coast over the course of a long hot summer, as told by 14-year old Benjamin, who is somewhat obsessed with aspirations to be famous despite his severe lack of talent.
The ABC has its usual nicely mixed bag of original content across all genres, beginning with the unusual and oddly charming six-part Kangaroo Dundee (Tuesday, 8pm), which tells the story of Chris “Brolga” Barns, a man who has dedicated his life to rescuing and raising orphan kangaroos.
A spin-off, it seems from the amusing doco that aired a couple of years ago, it’s about a very tall Aussie bloke who goes by the name of Brolga (named after the equally lanky bird), lives in a one-room tin shed in Alice Springs and spends his time saving orphaned joeys. Since childhood he has been infatuated with our most iconic animal, turning his love of the TV classic Skippy the Bush Kangaroo into a way of rescuing and raising hundreds of orphans for release back into the wild.
The bond he forms with his babies and the mob of wild kangaroos living with Brolga in his sanctuary provides a captivating insight into the kangaroo’s bizarre biology.
The ABC has also picked up the brilliant four-part series Inside Men (Wednesday, January 5, 9.20pm), which also recently aired on Foxtel — it’s a study of how men behave when they step out of their comfort zones and cross the moral line into criminality. It’s a gritty, noirish drama, a wonderful moral poser about three employees of a security depot who plan and execute a multi-million-pound cash heist.
20 Feet from Stardom (Sunday, January 10, 10pm) looks good too. Award-winning director Morgan Neville shines a spotlight on the backup singers (including Australia’s Jo Lawry) behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Along with rare archival footage and a peerless soundtrack, the film boasts interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting.
Foxtel also excels across the board, always determined to pick up new subscribers while its competitors turn the lights out for summer.
Laconic Kevin McCloud is back in the 13th season of Grand Designs UK (Lifestyle, Thursday, January 14, 8.30pm) with more original stories of ambitious families pursuing their architectural dreams, again dryly following his subjects’ attempts to convert lighthouses on the coast or glass-roofed eco-houses in the forests.
The hugely popular The Great British Bake Off (Lifestyle Food, Tuesday, January 19) also returns, with judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood creating 30 new challenges to test the baking prowess, creativity and skills of another 12 enthusiastic contestants in a bid to find the country’s best amateur baker.
And sometime in January, a new comedy show will surface that might just be the first sleeper of the new year, Baskets (Comedy Channel) co-created for the US FX channel by comedian Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and Portlandia’s Jonathan Krisel. It is the first project under FX Productions’ overall deal with Louis CK and his production company Pig Newton, and stars Galifianakis as a comic determined to become a French clown. However, reality keeps interfering and he ends up as a rodeo entertainer instead.
Who says there’s nothing on the TV through the holidays?
Clockwise from top, a scene from The Family Law, Food Safari Fire host Maeve
O’Meara, and scenes from The Missing and Kangaroo Dundee