What follows is not a “best-of” list and is by no means conclusive – but these are some of the Australian TV shows that stood out for me in 2013.
Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake is a seven-part mini-series co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion. It is a co-production between BBC Two, UK TV in Australia, and the Sundance Channel in the US. The series has the cinematic quality we have come to expect from HBO dramas, and mind-blowing plot developments at the conclusion of each episode to match.
Set against the backdrop of spectacular New Zealand mountain landscapes, Top of the Lake unravels the complex stories of those who live around the lake in the wake of the disappearance of pregnant 12-year-old girl, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe). Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is drawn to Tui’s case because of her own traumatic past.
Robin’s investigation disturbs the secrets that are concealed “at the end of the road, at the end of the earth”, as GJ (Holly Hunter), the spiritual leader of a new age women’s commune that takes up residency by the lake, puts it. These include drug dealing, paedophilia, and incest, and culminate in murder.
While there are traces of David Lynch in the series, Top of the Lake is understated in its mystery and surrealism, which often originate from the isolated natural setting.
The ABC withdrew from the project when the American Moss was cast in the lead. Yet the series remains a testament to Australian screenwriting, directing and acting, with the contributions of Gerard Lee, Garth Davis, David Wenham, and Robyn Nevin, among others.
Upper Middle Bogan
The myth of a classless society persists in Australia, yet our comedy is increasingly mining the social distinctions produced by wealth, education, and taste. Upper Middle Bogan follows in the stead of Housos and Kath & Kim, but does not exploit the most obvious costuming class codes of flannies, tracksuits and gumnut baby earrings.
The centre of the eight-episode series is doctor Bess Denyar, who discovers that she is adopted and that the working class Wheelers are her birth parents. While the usually derogatory term “bogan” sits in the title, apart from their keen interest in drag racing, the series presents a relatively nuanced and affectionate portrait of the Wheeler family. It recalls the spirit of The Castle’s celebration of proud suburban Australia, in the 1990s.
The Wheelers are eminently likeable in contrast with the rabble of the Sunnyvale housing estate or the gaudily dressed and self-absorbed Kim. Moreover, they’re largely more appealing than Bess’s pretentious mother, Margaret, and her ineffectual husband, Danny Bright.
We are encouraged to see the ridiculousness of class snobbery, as Bess and her twin children, Oscar and Edwina, attempt to fit in with their new-found relatives. A highlight is a private school orchestral performance transformed into a rendition of the Angels’ Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again.
Sonya Pemberton’s Jabbed is a timely and important examination of growing scepticism about vaccination and the public health price being paid as a result. The 90-minute documentary cuts through the quackery peddled by anti-vaccine proponents to show the real consequences of infants afflicted with whooping cough and adults now unthinkably suffering from measles.
Jabbed interviews doctors, anthropologists, homeopaths, psychologists, neuroscientists and immunologists to make sense of both the ways in which vaccines work and how we assess the risks involved.
It traces the history of vaccination from the early practice of variolation in India and China, in which smallpox scabs were used to intentionally infect healthy people with a mild form of the disease. Jabbed goes on to explain, with clever, cute animations, how the process of modern vaccination works.
Putting the issue in an international context, the documentary examines recent outbreaks of measles in the United Kingdom, France and the Ukraine, as well as the roll-out of the cervical cancer vaccine in Bhutan.
Yet it also treads a careful line in discussing the small percentage of children who have been harmed by vaccination, particularly those with undetected, inherited health problems.
These children are the statistical casualties who have enabled millions of other lives to be spared and still more to escape the potentially crippling effects of diseases such as polio.
Home and Away 25th Anniversary
Home and Away began in 1987 after Channel 7 watched on in dismay as Channel 10 revamped its cancelled soap Neighbours and made it a ratings success. It is now Australia’s second longest running drama.
The initial premise of a group of foster kids taken in by the childless Tom and Pippa Fletcher has long since dissolved, but the perilous explosions at the end of each season remain.
As does Ray Meagher as Alf Stewart. He is the sole original cast member and has been present to deliver his catchphrases “flamin’ mongrels” and “stone the crows” throughout the entire series.
Though richly rewarded by Logies (including a Gold Logie for Meagher in 2010), some questionable acting was mercilessly parodied in Fast Forward’s Dumb Street skit in its early years. Particularly memorable were the face slapping fights involving Jane Turner’s incarnation of Bobby and “Craig Donovan"’s vacant expression regardless of what transpired around him.
Nevertheless, Home and Away is notable for nurturing Australian writing and acting talent. Melissa George, Isla Fisher, Guy Pearce, Chris Hemsworth, Heath Ledger, Julian McMahon and Ryan Kwanten are among the stars who have moved on from the Bayside Diner and its hamburger phone to Hollywood.
The show is also a successful export, and is regularly screened in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and several countries in Europe.