Feature – What Is The Best Australian TV Drama?
Feature – What Is The Best Australian TV Drama?
Ask somebody what the best TV dramas of the last ten years are and you’ll hear some familiar titles. A critic might say: The Wire or The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Deadwood. A TV fan might offer you back: Dexter or True Blood or Lost or Fringe or Sons Of Anarchy. Ask somebody what the best Australian TV drama of the last ten years is and you’ll see tumbleweed roll by and maybe get the answer: “is it McLeod’s Daughters?”
That’s a little unfair, but the answer wouldn’t be far off.
What is the best Australian TV drama of the last ten years? Is it Underbelly? Love My Way? East West 101? The other question is; are there any Australian dramas that we can really call great? We can call something ‘the best’ without it being great, so when we look at Australian drama are we looking for greatness or just for something that’s better than the rest?
I’m serious when I ask these questions because I genuinely don’t know the answer to them and as somebody who talks as much about TV as I do it’d be good to have those answers. For a long time I’ve felt that Australian TV gets an easy run of things. Mediocre shows get more praise than they deserve, and above average shows get praised to the high heavens. It’s as if Australian TV drama exists in a bubble that excludes it from having to be compared to the rest of the world. Especially when it comes to dishing out awards, if a show is vaguely competent or sticks around long enough eventually everybody gets an award.
A show like Love My Way won the AFI Award for Best Drama Series and the Logie Award for Most Outstanding Drama Series three years in a row. A solid achievement on the surface, but for the AFI it was up against All Saints in every one of those years, and in 2007 it only competed against All Saints and the little seen FOX8 series Dangerous, that’s hardly Mad Men’s three-peat Emmy Award win against Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Good Wife, Lost and True Blood. I’m not suggesting that Love My Way isn’t good; I’m simply saying its wins are more like what would happen if you entered Usain Bolt in a school sports carnival than a well fought victory over rival titans.
Now it might be unfair to compare Australian television to American television because they have a ridiculous advantage over us. Not only do they have a bigger population and more money but they have an entire city dedicated to the creation of entertainment. Despite this I think we should compare ourselves simply because our TV dramas exist alongside their TV dramas. It’s not as though every Australian makes their own ‘local content rules’ forcing themselves to watch 181 hours of Australian television drama every year. If we treat the battle for viewer eyeballs as an actual battle, then we have to concede that we’ll never win in a war against the US, but let’s look at a fight we have a shot at winning.
If we can beat the British at sport, surely we can go toe-to-toe with them in television production as well. In the last year British television has given us Misfits, Sherlock, Downton Abbey and Luther, to name just four shows that achieved not only critical acclaim but commercial success as well. Again there is a big population difference, which contributes to the simple equation of ‘more people = more money, more shows, more chance of talent breaking through’. However, if our smaller population proves no issue on the sporting field, why does it hamper our chances of producing better television?
It’s not even a price difference that’s the issue. The rough estimates I could find listed Sherlock’s per episode budget at around £800,000 while Downton Abbey’s much touted cost per episode was closer to £1,000,000. Massive numbers but that number puts Sherlock’s three movie length episodes at about 3.6 million Australian dollars, and Downton’s seven episodes at around 10.6 million dollars. And how much do you think Channel 9 spent on the first season of Sea Patrol? About 15 million dollars. Would you prefer to live in a world where Channel 9 produced one season of Sea Patrol or both Sherlock and Downton Abbey? Or here’s a better question: When was the last time somebody said “Oh you just HAVE to check out the first season of Sea Patrol, it’s so good!”?
If Australian shows are operating around the same per episode budget as British shows then the question has to be asked, why don’t we follow the British model for television production? Even a show as phenomenally successful as Doctor Who only runs for 13 episodes each year, yet something as unsuccessful as Rescue: Special Ops recently kicked off a 22 episode season. Rescue has never been a big hit, but Nine decided to increase its order from 13 episodes for the first two seasons to 22 for its third (and presumably its last) season. Most British series run for 6 episodes, why couldn’t Nine have given Rescue a 10 episode order, and tested the water with two new 6 episode long series?
It makes sense to give Packed To The Rafters 22 episodes no matter its quality because its ratings justify it, but giving Rescue that number doesn’t make any sense, especially seeing as though Channel 9 is just airing them as double episodes in an effort to get rid of them as quickly as possible anyway. The ABC already follow the British model of six episode seasons, at least for their first season (although the upcoming ABC drama Crownies has a 22 episode first season, which is pretty baffling). Bed Of Roses recently completed its twelve episode third season, which I’m sure was met with a lot of ‘what’s Bed Of Roses?’ and ‘there were three seasons of it?’ With shorter seasons writers aren’t spread thin across thirteen or more episodes, giving them more time to focus on creating the best story possible and not just the most stories possible. It would also mean networks would get to try out more shows in a year instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket.
For my money the best Australian show I’ve seen in the last five years has been The Circuit, and not just because it stuck to my suggested ‘6 episodes per season’ model. Here’s the thing though, while I think The Circuit is a good show I’ve never recommended it to anyone. It’s a fine program, but when there are so many better (read: American and British) shows that I know somebody will enjoy more, what’s the point? I once saw an interview with Margaret Pomeranz where she said that she usually gave an extra half star when reviewing Australian films. So a three star American film would score three and a half stars from her if it were Australian. I don’t want to treat Australian dramas like the slow kid in class. I don’t want to give them an A+ for B- work just because I know I’m not going to see anything better from them. When I say I want to find the best Australian drama I mean it, there has to be something from the last fifteen years or so that we can hold alongside American series and say ‘this is good’ without adding ‘for an Australian show’.
There’s a ridiculous belief that Australians suffer from cultural cringe, which suggests that we have an inferiority complex which causes us to dismiss our culture as not being as good as other cultures. So when I say that Australian film isn’t as good as American film it’s simply me reflecting Australia’s inferiority complex, not because Somersault just isn’t as good as Inception. It’s nonsense, because the proof is in the pudding. Find me five Australian TV dramas that stack up alongside Mad Men or The Shield or Breaking Bad or Lost or Sons Of Anarchy or Freaks & Geeks or Boardwalk Empire or The West Wing or…
Over the coming months, or years, or however long it takes, I’m going to be seeking out Australian dramas from the last fifteen or so years to review in an effort to find the five best Australian dramas. I’ve set the limit at no earlier than 1995 simply because I want to include Blue Murder and want to exclude anybody suggesting something stupid like Prisoner or Number 96. Whenever a discussion of the best in Australia TV gets started inevitably somebody turns the clock back a few decades. For an example of this have a look on YouTube at the daft Channel 7 special ‘The Best Of Aussie Dramas’ from 2002; it opens with a 7 minute discussion of The Young Doctors which was already 20 years old when that special aired.
If I’m being completely honest I think this look back at Aussie drama is a bit of a fool’s errand. I don’t think I’ll find three shows that are worth the hunt let alone five shows. Still, I’m open to suggestions if anybody wants to point me in the right direction because I really want to find out what is Australia’s best TV drama. For most series I’ll be reviewing the first episode and watching more if I like what I see, but I’ll also try to seek out the ‘best episode’ of a show as well, especially if the show runs for longer than a single season. So I’m looking for not just show recommendations, but episode recommendations as well.
I’m fairly cynical about the quality of Australian television drama, which is why I’m going to try and prove myself wrong. Obviously I’ll come across a couple of shows that will just reaffirm my fears that Australian drama is mostly terrible (I’m looking at you, The Alice) but I really do hope that I find a few gems scattered throughout the last fifteen years of Australian TV drama.