The sheer quan­tity of qual­ity drama made 2016 an out­stand­ing year for view­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

Look­ing back on the tele­vi­sion we have watched this year is more ex­haust­ing than in pre­vi­ous years — the qual­ity and breadth was far more in­ter­est­ing, re­ward­ing and en­ter­tain­ing, even though some crit­ics com­plain that in the big­ger scheme of things we’re be­com­ing strangers to each other. There’s now so much to watch within those vast stream­ing li­braries that there’s al­most no time to com­mune with like-minded peo­ple about what we de­vour so in­tently.

On the other hand, Clive James in his re­cent Play All: A Binge­watcher’s Notebook, in which he cel­e­brates the rev­o­lu­tion of cable, broad­band, Net­flix and the box set, speaks of a “vol­u­ble con­ge­nial­ity” among dis­cern­ing view­ers who have dis­cov­ered the so-called golden age of TV, now able to view al­most any­thing they might want, even as the pick­ings have grown thin for view­ers of what might be called reg­u­lar TV.

Dom­i­nated by re­cy­cled re­al­ity shows, freeto-air TV seems pre­dictably fa­tigued, the sheer ton­nage of un­scripted con­tent no an­ti­dote for the lack of in­no­va­tion and sur­prise, its weari­ness char­ac­terised by Ten’s ap­palling I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! It fea­tured lit­tle dra­matic struc­ture apart from aim­less­ness and en­tropy. Un­doubt­edly it was the worst show of the year. But then again the other re­al­ity of­fer­ings were hardly oblig­a­tory view­ing ei­ther — as con­trived, campy and creepy as re­al­ity TV gets — though Ten’s age­ing cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion jug­ger­naut MasterChef re­mained buoy­ant, di­alling down the re­al­ity tropes a lit­tle and boost­ing the in­struc­tional as­pects.

An­other rev­e­la­tion was Seven’s new fixed rig ob­ser­va­tional re­al­ity show First Dates. This un­scripted drama was the most startling piece of re­al­ity TV since Come Dine with Me, the show that re­turned cook­ing to the kitchen and din­ing room; it de­liv­ered what scripted shows rarely do yet al­ways strive for: that sense of au­then­tic­ity.

Seven had an­other sur­prise hit — hap­pily, it wasn’t a re­al­ity show — with the crime ca­per Wanted, cre­ated by its star Re­becca Gib­ney and her hus­band Richard Bell, guided by vet­eran pro­duc­ers Tony Ayres and Julie McGau­ran. It had a lovely, know­ing touch of genre about it.

Seven also boldly pre­sented us with Molly, the lo­cal free-to-air show of the year for mine, that fine ac­tor Sa­muel John­son get­ting Molly Mel­drum, at once in­no­cent as a baby and as as­tute as the most pros­per­ous of mu­sic agents, just right — es­pe­cially that face, that ex­traor­di­nar­ily plas­tic vis­age.

And Nine, though it had a pa­thetic year re­ally, showed courage in premier­ing Here Come the Habibs. The story of a Le­banese-Aus­tralian fam­ily that moves from Bankstown to Vau­cluse af­ter win­ning the lot­tery, only to be met with panic by their ritzy white up­per-class neigh­bour, it was the year’s sneaki­est hit. While send­ing up the more ob­vi­ous eth­nic char­ac­ter­is­tics of Arab Le­banese cul­ture, the re­vue-style show de­lighted even more in tak­ing the trousers off the pre­ten­tious An­g­los and dis­man­tling their pompous self-re­gard. Rough around the edges, it was nonethe­less clever, lo­cal, and pop­u­lar.

Nine also pro­vided us with Hyde & Seek, an­other lit­tle sur­prise, a lo­cal ac­tion ad­ven­ture series that was both a po­lice pro­ce­dural and es­pi­onage thriller. Apart from a few crude loose ends, it was a corker, as­tutely en­gi­neered by creators Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan and di­rected with all the dra­matic flair Peter An­drikidis brings to any­thing he does.

Stream­ing ser­vice Net­flix ar­rived mid­way through last year but it was the way it in­sou­ciantly dropped the 10-part true crime doc­u­men­tary series Mak­ing a Mur­derer into its still con­sol­i­dat­ing sched­ule just as sum­mer broke that got peo­ple talk­ing. And those who dis­cov­ered it haven’t stopped since, as new de­vel­op­ments keep mak­ing head­lines.

Then came HBO’s doc­u­men­tary series The Jinx, which foren­si­cally ex­am­ined the life and times of Robert Durst, the reclu­sive prop­erty mil­lion­aire at the heart of three killings span- The Crown West­world Clev­er­man Molly The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent Rake Mak­ing a Mur­derer Quarry The Night Of Wanted ning four decades. It’s a sem­i­nal series that stretches the bound­ary between fact and fic­tion, truth par­layed with great imag­i­na­tive in­ten­sity.

True crime sud­denly be­came very chic, al­low­ing so many of us to act out what the great psy­chol­o­gist Wil­liam James called “our pri­mor­dial in­stinct for blood­shed and cru­elty” within the safety of our lounge rooms.

Foxtel had a won­der­ful year: strong new sea­sons of Went­worth and A Place to Call Home held their form and ex­tended their au­di­ences. There was mes­meris­ing lo­cal mys­tery drama The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent an­chored in the gothic land­scapes of Tas­ma­nia. And po­lit­i­cal thriller Se­cret City, set in Canberra, was an ed­geof-your-seat por­trayal of po­lit­i­cal skul­dug­gery, sub­terfuge, spy craft and mur­der — omi­nously pre­scient in this age of ter­ror — with great pho­tog­ra­phy from Mark Ware­ham.

And Foxtel’s pre­mium drama chan­nel Show­case also gave us the won­der­fully noir pe­riod ac­tion drama Quarry from Cinema. It was tough and men­ac­ing, and bru­tally top­i­cal. There was also Steven Zail­lian’s neo-noir crime drama The Night Of, HBO’s most elec­tri­fy­ing series since the orig­i­nal True De­tec­tive, and one of the big­gest and most in­tri­cate ever filmed for TV.

HBO also dropped in a num­ber of new-wave come­dies, among them High Main­te­nance, a series that moved ef­fort­lessly from the web to cable as it fol- lowed a Brook­lyn dope dealer and his cus­tomers, all deal­ing with the ex­i­gen­cies of day-to-day life in New York. Also from the web came Issa Rae’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­edy series In­se­cure, one of the big­gest cre­ative de­buts in a while — raunchy and painfully funny. The ABC had a strong year, its re­turn­ing shows sat­is­fy­ing fans, es­pe­cially Rake, Richard Roxburgh’s Cleaver Greene re­turn­ing in the up­roar­i­ous style we’ve come to ex­pect from this great series. He ar­rived dan­gling from a bal­loon drift­ing across the Sydney sky­line, de­scend­ing to earth through the win­dow of a posh har­bour­side town­house. Shelly Birse’s The Code, also re­turned, an­other edge-of-your-seat por­trayal of pol­i­tics and the to­tal­i­tar­ian men­ace of clan­des­tine state sur­veil­lance. The star­tlingly orig­i­nal, genre-de­fy­ing Clev­er­man also ar­rived with en­ergy and dis­tinc­tion. The ABC’s fac­tual pro­gram­ming was of an es­pe­cially high stan­dard this year. Keep­ing Aus­tralia Alive pro­vided an ex­tra­or­di­nary snap­shot of what hap­pens over a sin­gle day in our health ser­vice, and I was par­tic­u­larly touched by Terry Car­lyon’s Con­vic­tion, which, with great com­pas­sion, re­lived the hunt for the killer of Jill Meagher. The ABC’s head of arts Mandy Chang’s Artsville do­cos de­serve a round of ap­plause too, es­pe­cially John Clarke’s bril­liant Mambo: Art Ir­ri­tates Life and Cather­ine Hunter’s ele­giac Glenn Mur­cutt: Spirit of Place. The Ka­ter­ing Show was a find, too,

The Crown; Mak­ing a Mur­derer;

The Ket­ter­ing In­ci­dent; Molly more acidly com­edy than arts of course, but it was a de­light to dis­cover its creators — the two Kates, McLen­nan and McCart­ney — and their ir­re­sistible mix of phys­i­cal hu­mour, cross-talk repar­tee, slap­stick, droll throw­away satire and cul­tural com­men­tary. But the big­gest sur­prise for me was the ABC’s sin­gu­larly orig­i­nal You Can’t Say That, pro­duced and di­rected by Kirk Docker and Aaron Smith, an en­gag­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally caus­tic ex­er­cise in mak­ing us all bet­ter peo­ple by giv­ing the dis­ad­van­taged a voice and face on prime time telly.

SBS ini­ti­ated a still some­what undis­cov­ered pro­gram­ming coup — and bril­liantly lat­eral it was too — by turn­ing catch-up TV ser­vice SBS On De­mand into a vast stream­ing repos­i­tory of the best Euro­pean dra­mas, a boon for those weary of the free-to-air net­works, es­pe­cially now that sub­ti­tles are so fash­ion­able.

The year’s block­busters de­liv­ered, some more than oth­ers. From Net­flix, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down charted the par­al­lel rise of hip hop, disco and the art scenes of late 70s New York. It was so full of ideas, a fran­tic in­tel­lec­tual and mu­si­cal col­lage, that af­ter a while you longed for it to dis­en­tan­gle it­self a lit­tle. HBO’s equally ex­pen­sive trippy sci-fi epic West­world is still un­fold­ing its tan­ta­lis­ing sto­ry­lines.

Also from Net­flix, also as­ton­ish­ingly ex­pen­sive, The Crown, the in­ti­mate story of Queen El­iz­a­beth’s early reign, drama­tised with cin­e­matic felic­ity by a group of dis­tin­guished cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tors, has class writ­ten all over it.

It’s ex­haust­ing think­ing about it all; TV is tak­ing us over. As Mar­shall McLuhan put it long ago: “We shape our tools and there­after they shape us.”

Evan Rachel Wood in West­world; be­low, from left, Claire Foye in El­iz­a­beth De­bicki in bot­tom, Sa­muel John­son in

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