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Feature – What Is The Best Australian TV Drama?

June 23, 2011

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.

 

This search for the answer to this question has so far led to reviews for:
The Alice
Fire
Murder Call

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Stu permalink
    June 23, 2011 10:10 pm

    The two Australian dramas that come to mind for me are Underbelly and Black Jack.

    Black Jack does get the edge over alot of other aussie dramas because it is so short. There are only 7 “Episodes” (the show is more a series of TV movies over several years, each being 2 hours long). Its been a while since ive seen them, but I do remember looking forward to them when they were coming out.

    Underbelly…this vote is purely for season 1. Season 2 is bad, and Season 3 is horrific. Season 1 is the single greatest season of any Australian TV show ever. I stand by that because it is the only Austrailan series I have ever gone back and watched for a second time, and would gladly watch again still. The problem with it for me though is the story it is based on is truely amazing. And im sure if it had been handed to David Simon he could have written a 5 to 7 season show purely dedicated to it. Instead whomever has had the task to write it in australia has used as much as they can and crammed it into one season. This keeps it interesting because every episode something massive is happening, and means characters can be killed off near every episode. However when they reach season 2 they have tapped out the well and moved to a less interesting story, and dont seem to have any ability to write it. That being said, part of what makes the first season good is that you like the cops. Rodger Corser and Caroline Craig play great likeable cops who you are actually rooting for. Even come the second season they seem to have forgotten how to write likeable characters.

    So I would say Black Jack would be my pick for consistency over the entire show, and Underbelly season 1 is good, but dragged under by the crap that has been added to it since. Unless you can call the technicality that since the title of the show changes (EG Underbelly: Tale of Two Cities is more like CSI: Miami rather than CSI season 2) then it would be my pick. Either way I would say there is alot to choose from for best single episode of an australian series from that season 1.

  2. rach permalink
    June 23, 2011 11:27 pm

    Love Is a Four Letter Word wins hands down for me. Was amazing, and completley overshadowed by the Secret Life of Us which transmitted at the same time. It had drama without too much melodrama and fantastic music from australian artists. Amazingly I dont think it was ever released on DVD or retransmitted in prime time.

  3. June 24, 2011 12:53 am

    Much as it pains me I have to agree with you. When I look at what I’ve watched, enjoyed and (all importantly) bought on DVD in recent years there’s very little Australian TV drama. It’s odd because we can make great dramatic films and write great dramataic books.

    The only one I think qualifies is an ABC production from the early 00′s called MDA – it ran for a few years and I think it does stack up against the shows you mention. Good acting, solid writing, plots longer than a minute (or an episode) and some complex issues explored. Not as gritty as THE WIRE certainly but drama doesn’t have to be that grim to be good in my book.

    I’d almost throw in Sea Change too though I am not sure that is really a drama, certainly at the lighter end of the scale (bordering on comedy). But it’s the only other one I can think of that I would buy on DVD.

    The best cop drama we’ve produced is Murder Call in my opinion – though it only just scrapes in to your cut-off dates.

    Sadly I can’t think of a single thing in the last 5 years that I’d even consider adding to the list (I was the only person in the country who didn’t watch Underbelly so can’t comment on that one)

  4. June 24, 2011 10:53 am

    I can’t think of a single Aussie drama or show that’s anywhere near even the lowest the quality US show, let alone the good ones you mentioned.

    • Lara permalink
      December 14, 2012 2:35 pm

      That’s a ridiculous comment.

  5. June 25, 2011 11:44 am

    I accidentally switched the channel once and saw this ethnic cop show with high octane stories and first class acting, that was better than any of the NCIS, CSIs and just as hard hitting as The Shield. The show was called East West 101, and I started watching it loyally after that. The episode where Susie Porter’s character gets raped, and the way they deal with that, and intermingle it with multiple stories going on, was probably in the top ten best TV I’d seen it Australia or anywhere else. Friends I’d recommended it too, were also really impressed and couldn’t understand why this show had such little media coverage. Perhaps because it’s on SBS, but still….mystifying.

    Recently, another show, that was easily the best drama I’d seen in a while, that was international standard was an Australian show called ‘Rake’. The layered original characterization, controversial stories and humanistic characters reminded me of ‘Six Feet Under’. I loved it. And filmmaker friends who despise Australian drama were praising that show.

    Historically the ABC produced narrative drama, and comedy that was of an international standard. I’m thinking ‘Wildside’, ‘Seachange’, ‘Janus’.

    We need to do more diverse genre TV. Not just cop shows or doctor shows. And we need to start writing riskier characters – not blandly likeable. TV tastes are maturing, but executives are still not taking notice. ‘Rafters’ is OK, but still at the shallow end of the pool.

  6. Paul permalink
    July 25, 2011 3:12 am

    Wildside was made over ten years ago and is much better than anything on television today, I highly recommend it to anyone.

  7. Francis J Emerson permalink
    August 1, 2011 4:46 am

    Power without Glory was rather good. Great story by a good Australian author. Strong performances by the actors/actresses. Absorbing and thoroughly entertaining.

  8. August 25, 2011 3:46 pm

    Sad, but true. Aussie television pales in comparison to American and British productions. There have been a couple of miniseries over the past decade (Back Jack, After the Deluge) that have impressed, but apart from that it’s a pretty bleak landscape when it comes to drama. The first season of Underbelly was okay, I guess. Though even compared to second-tier shows shows like The Killing, it comes off as pretty amateurish. I feel like it would have worked better as tight 2-hour feature (see: Animal Kingdom) than the trashy, bloated series it turned out as.

    The shows I would recommend are Janus, Wildside, Blue Murder, Halifax f.p., Sea Change and, if you’re willing to push you time-frame back to 1992-1993, Phoenix. Some more recent shows: Rake and East West 101.

  9. August 26, 2011 3:52 am

    Since first reading your column I have tried to watch some of the shows mentioned . East West 101 is one of the best I have seen for a long time. I am now up episode 4 season 3 and think it has just about run its course. Murder Call is a joke with its wooden acting and stilted cliched dialogue. Wildside seems promising but it’s early days as yet. Blackjack and Rake are hard to pin down on the net and Cloud Street is a very good book.I don’t want to spoil my memory of it by watching a TV version. Crownies is not for me and your critiques of it so far seem to fit my thoughts.
    I much appreciated your article and the ensueing comments and look forward to more.

  10. vibracaust permalink
    August 26, 2011 8:43 am

    Tangle?

    It’s as good if not better than some of those mentioned.

    Wildside? (maybe)

    There are also way better American cable shows than the ones you mentioned.

    • pdjones permalink*
      August 26, 2011 9:27 am

      There are, but I didn’t need a complete list of good American cable shows to make my point.

  11. Jenna permalink
    November 8, 2011 1:26 am

    Love My Way for sure! Best thing I’ve seen on Australian TV, hands down. You should review! :) Only just discovered your blog, by the way…loving it!

    • August 24, 2012 7:17 am

      For me Love My Way definitely cant stand up against some of the top tier US dramas. It is absolutely one of my favourite tv series, and has an unfathomably good cast.

  12. Zack permalink
    November 16, 2011 8:27 am

    The only Australian drama that I have ever liked was “A Country Practice”. ALL the other ones suck.

  13. Larry Pinell permalink
    February 18, 2012 2:05 am

    Being Canadian, I can relate to the inferiority complex notion. But, as an independent viewer of Australian, British and U.S. TV and films, first let me assure you that The Slap is as good as any miniseries I’ve seen. Period. So now I am looking into other Australian series and I’m starting with Underbelly, East West 101 and Black Jack.
    As far as films go, GREAT films are made in Australia, especially since the Australian govt. passed laws to ensure distribution (and thus more money) for films made there. In Canada, we have a long way to go in this regard. Generally, the only really worthwhile films made here come out of Quebec, in French. Worth checking out some of those, for you Aussies!
    Most Canadian talent goes south to the U.S. because there is simply not enough reason to stay here, given the distribution monopoly held by U.S. companies.
    But there are GREAT documentaries made here and TV documentary series like Fifth Estate are well worth watching. Also check out the documentary category on cbc.ca
    Cheers.

  14. Will permalink
    July 18, 2012 11:53 am

    Offspring, a little stupid at points but hilariously so. It comes off a bit like a showcase for its cast and its location – Melbourne. Secondly I’d nominate Spirited, starring Claudia Karvan from Love My Way. It is a drama/comedy like Offspring, but has a ghost. You know, that makes it better. Spirited was on pay TV, but was axed after two seasons, while Offspring was and continues to be on Ten.

  15. Luke permalink
    October 11, 2012 6:53 am

    The Sullivans. Puts all other Australian shows to shame.

  16. Wendy permalink
    October 26, 2012 3:06 pm

    I think you may be underestimating us slightly! I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, and certainly the number of great Australian TV productions is far, far lower than that of America or the UK. But I do think a few shows are worthy of that Showtime / HBO quality, and sit on par with the best of them. What I think is a shame is that occasionally, the shows in Australia are produced in such a way that it undermines the FANTASTIC acting. I really mean that. I think the actors in Australian drama television are amongst the best. Anyway:

    Love My Way – It’s a no-brainer. Bold writing and direction, a distinct visual palette, and one of the most phenomenal ensembles ever to appear on television. Brilliantine slice-of-life drama that is often painful for exposing those little moments in life, those small disappointments that have so much pathos and drama in them but seem untapped in international TV. Fascinating, real characters. There’s an episode in series 2 (where Asher Keddie’s character goes to the shop… i’ll say no more to avoid spoilers) that is just a superb episode. Amazing in every way.

    East West 101 – As good as cop dramas come. Another great cast, but this time with the assured direction of directors like Peter Andrikidis. Every episode feels like one of those gritty Australian crime films we do so well (The Interview, Animal Kingdom, Snowtown). Very layered, and with some great characterisations.

    Tangle – It borrows a LOT from Love My Way. Really, quite a lot. But if you’re going to borrow from somewhere, it might as well be from somewhere good, and I have to say that the sublime cast and the writing ensure that while the characters aren’t always likeable, they are always compelling.

    The Secret Life Of Us – It’s a good mixture of the best of Australian comedy and drama, and amongst the best ‘coming-of-age’ television shows i’ve seen. A great cast and a very addictive show. Unfortunately it seemed to lose its footing in the later episodes, but it’s still an enormously watchable program and will make one a bit nostalgic about that wonderful yet brief early-00s era.

    Rake – Very well acted, and one of the best-written shows on TV today. Australian or otherwise. It goes for something pretty bold tonally, and I don’t think it always hits the mark, but when it does it’s very good. The guest stars are incredible, and I honestly think that if the budget was higher (and thus, the writers had longer) then it could be one of the greats.

    Satisfaction – Infintely better than ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’, or whatever other international equivalents there are. A bit more geared towards women, but it’s compelling and well-written television. Similar to Rake in how it’s stylised in a certain manner. I think that though for both these shows it doesn’t always work out, it’s ambitious and something more Australian TV programs should be doing. Creating a unique, interesting tone and style.

    Bed Of Roses – I may be alone here. And even I don’t think it’s anywhere near ‘amazing’ or anything. But there’s something bizarrely delightful about this show. Another great ‘slice-of-life’ drama about life in a small-town. Its characters are endearing and while the plot is never too exciting, it always manages to put a smile on my face somehow.

    I didn’t include things like SeaChange, The Librarians, We Can Be Heroes, The Games, Kath & Kim, etc because I classify them as comedy. But they’re just some other shows I think we’ve done really well in the last couple of years.

    • Lara permalink
      December 14, 2012 2:26 pm

      I agree with Wendy’s post just add on The Slap and Paper Giants and don’t forget Heartbreak High!

  17. Sean permalink
    January 31, 2013 9:49 am

    Just finished love my way, had been given it a year ago and am thrilled to have watched all. The characters whilst lovable all seem damaged by experiences or each other and gradually take you to a dark place. I do think that scripts can make or break a show as you can have a show full of names with little substance. I believe the best shows are the ones that you discover yourself and not get walked into by the spin of promo. I think Australia has potential dramas available to it yet need time to grieve in real life vs television , ie Port Arthur ,black Saturday Bali nine etc. I much prefer a shorter series of good quality than a dragged out one.

  18. January 16, 2014 8:22 pm

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of Redfern Now. I have lived in the UK for 4 years now so never heard of it, yet stumbled upon it on the net. I can easily say it’s the best Aussie drama i’ve seen. It is groundbreaking. Also shamelessly got hooked on Offspring but who can blame me for that.

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