BOX OF SUM­MER FUN

At first glance the cup­board looks bare, but there are some great shows in store

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

Ican’t re­call a time when it seemed there was so lit­tle to watch on free-to-air TV, as we fall fur­ther into the sum­mer break and with rat­ings not due to start un­til Fe­bru­ary. Only last week this col­umn was talk­ing of the way those of us who look for surprise and orig­i­nal­ity in our view­ing have never had so much to choose from, and that’s still the case if you sub­scribe to Fox­tel and Net­flix and Stan.

The stream­ers’ li­braries are enor­mous and Net­flix in par­tic­u­lar is now cater­ing to a huge au­di­ence, hav­ing re­cently an­nounced an un­ex­pected jump in sub­scribers, a con­stituency that is young and up­scale and des­per­ate for orig­i­nal con­tent.

But even the rel­a­tively new stream­ers are not of­fer­ing much that’s new through the sum­mer, although Stan ex­clu­sively brings us the fourth sea­son of three fea­ture-length episodes of Sher­lock, star­ring the now truly fa­mous Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s great de­tec­tive. The first episode be­comes avail­able on Jan­uary 2, the same day it lands in Bri­tain.

The first film, The Six Thatch­ers (based on Co­nan Doyle’s story The Ad­ven­ture of the Six Napoleons), finds Holmes not only wait­ing to see how his arch-neme­sis Mo­ri­arty will make a post­hu­mous move against him, but de­ter­mined to dis­cover why some­one is de­stroy­ing images of for­mer prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher.

Stan also pre­mieres the crit­i­cally well-re­ceived break­out orig­i­nal drama Un­der­ground on Jan­uary 24, with all episodes avail­able on de­mand. It’s the epic se­ries about slav­ery and es­cape cre­ated by He­roes writ­ers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duced by mu­si­cian John Leg­end.

While crit­i­cised in some quar­ters for us­ing slav­ery as a back­drop for a story about ad­ven­ture and in­trigue, it has been lauded for us­ing hu­mour and con­tem­po­rary songs to bring to light a black em­pow­er­ment story glossed over in the great, largely white, nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can his­tory.

So there are sev­eral op­tions for new shows on the two stream­ers but the free-to-air net­works are dom­i­nated by Ten’s thrillingly bru­tal Big Bash cricket se­ries, which is al­ready un­der way, and the tra­di­tional tennis cov­er­age on Seven, which this sum­mer will of­fer a fully in­te­grated ver­sion across broad­cast tele­vi­sion, on­line and mo­bile. It seems ev­ery tennis match in the coun­try will be seen some­where on Seven; it’s as if the net­work wants tennis to be­come an ex­ten­sion of our­selves, to change how we think, be­have and even dream. Oh well.

SBS is rel­a­tively quiet across the sum­mer but is pre­mier­ing the sec­ond sea­son of the mer­cu­rial Shaun Mi­callef’s Stair­way to Heaven (Wed­nes­day, Jan­uary 18, 8.30pm), in which the clever comic, like so many co­me­di­ans be­fore him, not con­tent to make us happy, is still on a quest to find the mean­ing of life. TV’s great de­bunker re­mains en­vi­ous of those with “un­shak­able faith”, and jour­neys across the globe, im­mers­ing him­self in some of the world’s most es­o­teric re­li­gions and be­liefs. Why do so many co­me­di­ans dream of be­com­ing Ham­let?

For diehard fans, Michael Hirst’s in­ter­na­tional hit Vik­ings (Wed­nes­day, Jan­uary 11, 8.30pm) re­turns to SBS with the fi­nal episodes of sea­son four, again ap­par­ently in­spired by real-life events such as Bjorn Iron­side sail­ing through the Mediter­ranean and Ivar the Bone­less be­com­ing the most feared war­rior of all time. Ed­u­ca­tional and en­ter­tain­ing, this one.

The ABC seems qui­eter than it has been for some sum­mers but look out for the ubiq­ui­tous Stephen Fry in Stephen Fry in Cen­tral Amer­ica (Tues­day, Jan­uary 10, 8.30pm), a newish se­ries in which he trav­els on an old school bus through Mex­ico and the en­tire Cen­tral Amer­i­can isth­mus to the Pana­ma­nian bor­der with South Amer­ica. Yes, it’s an­other of those celebrity trav­el­ogues, a genre so drolly ex­ploited by Michael Palin, but it looks ter­rific and is im­bued with Fry’s witty cheek­i­ness and in­quis­i­tive­ness.

Also re­turn­ing is the sim­i­larly om­nipresent Kevin McCloud with a se­ries of four Grand De­sign spe­cials, be­gin­ning on Sun­day, Jan­uary 8, at 8.30pm, in which he draws on 15 years of Grand De­signs — and the as­ton­ish­ing and of­ten im­pru­dent homes he has filmed in this time — to look at the chal­lenges of self-build­ing in the city, wilder­ness, suburbia and coun­try­side.

There’s an ABC Box­ing Day treat for Whove­ri­ans with the Doc­tor Who Christ­mas spe­cial, The Re­turn of Doc­tor Mys­te­rio, writ­ten by Stephen Mof­fat. It sees the Doc­tor team up with an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and a su­per­hero to save New York from a deadly alien threat.

And on the same day on iView you can catch Doc­tor Who: The Power of the Daleks, an an­i­mated se­ries based on one of the most cel­e­brated Doc­tor Who ad­ven­tures. The orig­i­nal film was de­stroyed, and the new show is in­ge­niously based on orig­i­nal au­dio record­ings, sur­viv­ing pho­to­graphs and film clips.

Fox­tel is again where the sum­mer ac­tion is this year, the net­work de­ter­mined to out­fox the cir­cling stream­ers with over­whelm­ing orig­i­nal con­tent. The Walk­ing Dead re­turns for the fi­nal eight episodes of sea­son seven on Mon­day, Fe­bru­ary 13, at 1.30pm and prime time at 7.30pm on FX, ex­press from the US. You’ll be watch­ing with more than 200 mil­lion view­ers in over 200 coun­tries, and there seems lit­tle doubt Sher­iff Rick and the now re­assem­bled sur­viv­ing char­ac­ters are about to em­bark on a big­ger bat­tle than any­thing they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced since the dead started wan­der­ing.

If you need a break from zom­bie may­hem there’s yet more McCloud, who presents the sec­ond sea­son of Lifestyle’s Grand De­signs: House of the Year (Thurs­day, Jan­uary 26, 8.30pm) in which, to­gether with the Royal In­sti­tute of Bri­tish Ar­chi­tects and a se­lec­tion of guest re­porters, he looks for the best new home in Bri­tain.

The Job In­ter­view (Lifestyle, Mon­day, Jan­uary 30, 8.30pm) also looks in­ter­est­ing, a real­ity se­ries in which real jobs are matched with peo­ple des­per­ate to fill them, the re­cruit­ment process com­pressed into one in­tense day.

But the big Lifestyle se­ries is un­doubt­edly the sev­enth sea­son of the al­ways happy Great Bri­tish Bake Off (Tues­day, Jan­uary 17, 8.30pm), the show that more than al­most any other rep­re­sents a safe haven in a hos­tile world, now seen in more than 200 coun­tries, many of which have their own ver­sions.

The pop­u­lar Coast Aus­tralia (Lifestyle, Mon­day, Jan­uary 9, 7.30pm) re­turns too, with Bri­tish arche­ol­o­gist Neil Oliver show­cas­ing dif­fer­ent strips of our coast­line and gath­er­ing sto­ries about their his­tory.

Dear old Rick Stein is back on the same night in Rick Stein’s Long Week­ends (Lifestyle Food, Mon­day, Jan­uary 9, 8.30pm), mooching around Bordeaux, Ber­lin, Reyk­javik, Bologna and Vi­enna on an­other of his culi­nary rever­ies, throw­ing in the odd lit­er­ary quote as he checks out the bars and cafes.

There’s more pre­mium orig­i­nal con­tent on Vik­ings, Un­der­ground, Stair­way to Heaven;

Stephen Fry in Cen­tral Amer­ica Fox­tel’s BBC World­wide chan­nels, all of which were given a com­pet­i­tive facelift ear­lier this year. BBC Knowl­edge pre­mieres Sav­ing Lives at Sea (Sun­day, Jan­uary 1, 7.30pm), an ob­ser­va­tional se­ries that fol­lows the de­cent and gen­er­ous vol­un­teers of the Royal Na­tional Lifeboat In­sti­tu­tion — there are hun­dreds of crews across Bri­tain — who risk their lives to save others when they shout for as­sis­tance.

In Land of the Mid­night Sun (Wed­nes­day, Jan­uary 11, 8.30pm), Alexan­der Arm­strong em­barks on an epic ad­ven­ture into the Arc­tic win­ter for a 12,000km jour­ney half­way around the planet, a chal­lenge that we’re told un­folds in the spirit of the ul­ti­mate Arc­tic ad­ven­tur­ers.

BBC First has the two top dra­mas of the sum­mer to pro­vide sev­eral hours at least of ab­sorbed view­ing.

Close to the En­emy (Sun­day, Jan­uary 15, 8.30pm), by multi-award-win­ning writer and direc­tor Stephen Po­li­akoff (Danc­ing on the Edge), is a com­plex es­pi­onage thriller set in a bomb­dam­aged Lon­don ho­tel in the af­ter­math of World War II. A se­cre­tive unit has been es­tab­lished with a mis­sion to sweep up Ger­man sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers and their knowl­edge be­fore com­pet­ing pow­ers (es­pe­cially the Soviet Union) can get them.

And Or­di­nary Lies (Satur­day, Jan­uary 21, 8.30pm) is a new six-part an­thol­ogy drama (the sec­ond in a crit­i­cally suc­cess­ful and pop­u­lar se­ries) from award-win­ning writer Daniel Brock­le­hurst ( The Driver, Ac­cused), cen­tred on the call cen­tre and ware­house of a sports sales com­pany in Wales, each episode delv­ing into one of the lies be­hind the lives of the char­ac­ters.

Sud­denly, hav­ing started this sur­vey with a lit­tle res­ig­na­tion and sad­ness, I’m be­gin­ning to get quite ex­cited. Happy sum­mer view­ing to all First Watch­ers.

Travis Fim­mel as Rag­nar Loth­brok in

top; Alano Miller, Aldis Hodge and Theo­dus Crane in far left; Shaun Mi­callef’s be­low,

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