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