The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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.


Mick and Di from Gog­gle­box, above; and Joel Jackson, left, in

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