SPOILT FOR CHOICE
We once believed that television shows were beamed into our living rooms “like visions from some powerful force so mighty its name cannot even be imagined”, as the critic David Marc said in his seminal 1984 study Demographic Vistas. But this decades-old technical miracle has changed shape in just 12 months, with its previously devout community of watchers splintering in every direction.
During the period of TV’s greatest expansion, we are starting to turn our backs on the slick, faceless veneer of free-to-air TV, with the sweaty hands of the individual taking control. One of the year’s successes was, in fact, Gogglebox, which celebrates the traditional but increasingly obsolete notion of TV as a virtual community, an extended family brought together by the same shows, although our representative households are hardly compliant, submissive or lacking in energy. They argue with the screen, shout and barrack, and at times cackle with ridicule so violently that they practically tumble off their sofas. There was also a lot to shout about across the watching season.
This year a thousand other viewing options have presented themselves as streaming services including Presto, Stan and Netflix have come into our lives — possibly changing them forever.
Classy narrative is everywhere in these vast archives, just don’t expect much new original content (Netflix’s Narcos is a superb exception). The streamers are immune for the moment to the quotas that apply to commercial and pay operators, but should be required to contribute to local storytelling.
Even so, the ambitious, shape-shifting spirit of what we once so innocently called “the magic lantern” delivered up another challenging 12 months, particularly in TV drama and factual programming, as long as you didn’t get dizzy while hunting down goodies across so many outlets.
If you can’t bear the reality TV franchises, which are dwindling in audience support, there wasn’t very much on the commercial networks; their new dramas, however, were all class; in fact, about half of the top 25 dramas were local, as free-to-air viewers turned away from middleof-the-road US dramas.
Nine’s Gallipoli — from producers John Edwards, Robert Connolly and Imogen Banks, and brilliant director Glendyn Ivin — was a vivid encounter with the metaphysical that moved one to tears, a cinematic meditation on the poetry of horror. Perhaps it rated poorly because, according to social media, the advertising barrage was overwhelming and inappropriate.
And Seven’s Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door was also superb; scripted by Justin Monjo and Michael Miller, and adapted from Stephen MacLean’s pop biography The Boy from Oz, the two-parter was directed by the accomplished Shawn Seet. (Creatively agile, he also gave us Matt Ford’s distinctive ABC crime series Hiding.) Peter Allen was a highly polished piece of commercial TV with the right emphasis on stars, spectacle, sex, conflict and pain, with a burnished kind of glossiness and a lot of heart. Especially from Joel Jackson, who played Allen with panache and emotional empathy.
Seven also triumphed with popular family drama 800 Words, set largely in New Zealand, a local product written, acted and produced with discernment. It was quietly amusing and at times just a bit wacky. And Catching Milat, also from Seven, was a hit — with outstanding direction by Peter Andrikidis and his long-time collaborator, director of photography Joseph Pickering. They delivered both a psychological thriller looking at the forces that created serial killer Ivan Milat, and an intricately plotted police procedural drama set against a backdrop of escalating media pressure and public fear.
The ABC also aired some distinctive original drama. Along with Hiding — both thriller and love story, it challenged as much as it coddled — there was the eerie Glitch and the fine The Beautiful Lie. The standout though was the epic tragedy The Secret River, adapted into an excellent two-part series from Kate Grenville’s colonial-era first-contact novel. Directed by the accomplished Daina Reid, it was a searching exploration of character and the shadow cast by the fear, violence and the individual isolation of the early settlers. It left many of us moved, if profoundly uncomfortable. Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door
There was fine drama too, in full HBO style, from SBS with The Principal, Kriv Stenders’ contemporary crime series, set in a Sydney boys high school, exploring cultural, economic and social issues in a way that was just as compelling and astutely engineered as anything from the Nordic countries.
Some rough-and-ready comedy stood out too. Aunty premiered 8MMM, the first sitcom to be created, written, produced and directed by indigenous artists. And it turned out to be delightfully silly, cleverly written and produced, and crammed with insightful observations about life in Alice Springs.
Then there was the slyly modest series from Lawrence Leung called Maximum Choppage on ABC 2, subtitled A Kung Fu Comedy — it made up for its lack of budget in comic ingeniousness and straight-out quirkiness. It was set in a comic-strip version of the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, with Leung and his collaborators ransacking familiar Asian motifs to create a different kind of storytelling that moved at speed with a kind of rough and tumble comic gusto.
Foxtel turned 20 this year and it was hard to remember the full-page newspaper birth notice that appeared on October 23, 1995, triumphantly declaring a “fantastic new arrival”, the network “weighing in with 20 channels”. Both parents, News Corporation (owner of what was then known as News Limited, publisher of The Australian) and Telstra, were said to be delighted, but apart from this announcement the network was launched without drum rolls or a red carpet parade of starlets and socialites.
How it’s changed. But Foxtel now finds itself in a new era of streaming technology that threatens its market dominance in an area that once required special equipment, such as a settop box, but now only needs an internet connection. What it still has, though, is a vast weekly output of original programming across all genres, and hugely popular long-running series such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones that continue to enthral fans, along with locally produced Wentworth, an international hit.
This year it cleverly resurrected the complex melodrama A Place to Call Home, joining with Seven, which had cancelled the popular show when the audience had skewed to an unwelcome older demographic of mainly women over 55, to the chagrin of thousands of devoted fans. It was revived because of the agitation of those passionate devotees and the wily discernment of Foxtel boss Brian Walsh, and proved to be a hit for the network.
So was The Great Australian Bake Off, the stylish local version of the successful British series. Like its parent, it proved to be a rather jolly, gentle show with no bitching, backbiting or vindictiveness, unlike so many reality series.
In the factual zone, it was hard to go past the acclaimed HBO feature documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, the groundbreaking six-part documentary airing on Showcase, directed and produced by Andrew Jarecki and produced and shot by Marc Smerling. They delved into the strange history of real estate heir Robert Durst, long suspected in the still unsolved 1982 disappearance of his wife and several subsequent murders. There was a wonderful sense of what crime writer James Ellroy calls “fragrant disorder” about this series that made it utterly alluring — it was simply impossible to tell what was real and what was fictitious.
I was one of the few critics to love Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective on Foxtel’s Showcase channel, now into a complex, controversial second season, but this show was worth the effort despite narrative complications and sometimes awkward grabs at profundity. SBS, however, had the best series, the second season of Fargo, another mesmerising 10-part prairie noir tale from creator Noah Hawley about a group of good Minnesota folk driven to the brink by anger and stupidity. BBC First’s Doctor Foster and the droll pastoral comedy Detectorists also deserve mentions.
It was a year in which the cherished notion of the armchair nation (a term coined by British critic Joe Moran) was severely challenged in this country, with so many of us now watching in ways as diverse as TV itself.
THE CHERISHED NOTION OF THE ARMCHAIR NATION WAS SEVERELY CHALLENGED
Mick and Di from Gogglebox, above; and Joel Jackson, left, in