Freaking Bad: Australian TV And Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

A few years ago while I was studying screenwriting, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to a talk from Australian television writer and producer Andrew Knight. At that stage Knight was well-known for his work on SeaChange, CrashBurn, and Fast Forward, and has since gone on to write After the Deluge, Rake and the Jack Irish telemovies. As far as Australian TV goes, good stuff.

At the talk, he discussed how lamentable it was that Australian television writers wasted away in mediocrity. Not through fault of trying, but in lack of proper development, and encouragement from the networks in delivering notably high-quality stories to the public.

He told a story about a guy who worked in pest-control, called to eradicate some possums from the roof of an affluent, suburban household. Which he did promptly. The next week, the same guy was called to a house down the street, with the same possum problem. A week later, elsewhere in the street. The gig was, the guy would chase them out of one house and into another, and keep getting paid for moving the possums around the same street.

Knight described this as a distinctly Australian narrative, with regard to the humour and portrait of suburban life. He told the story well, and it worked on the crowd. Knight said we needed more Australian stories, of quality and honesty, rather than trying to cynically dwindle ourselves away with mindless reality-based programs, which at the time were in their infancy on our screens.

Fair call, considering that the most significant Australian television awards were held recently, and the most prestigious award of the night – the Gold Logie – was awarded to a carpenter. Who hosts a show about idiots arguing inside poorly designed houses.

When critics far and wide – both armchair and officechair – are falling over themselves in beholding the Sublime Ordained Golden Era of Television, it’s staggering to think that Australian television is still stuck in the mire of talent shows, manufactured reality and over-composed sob stories.

When the Emmy Awards and Golden Globes are busy recognising Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Homeland, Girls and 30 Rock, and the BAFTAS Broadchurch, The IT Crowd and Top of the Lake, our priorities seem a bit skewy. And this is without even mentioning the endless fawning over Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks, 24, The X-Files, Oz, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Brideshead Revisited and State of Play – are we mainlining Australian stories as much as we are others? Hardly.

And yes I know the Logies often boil down to a popularity contest run by a magazine with stakes in particular networks, but still. We deserve better. We should have better stories.

Very, very occasionally something does work. But often that’s just a red rag to ready-to-pounce criticism. After his work with We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, Chris Lilley has found the reception to his later work impenetrably critical. Verging on the ridiculous, critics swing from ‘is it any good?’ to ‘is he over-hyped?’ to ‘is this just offensive?’, while still trying to promote the show. I have no opinion either way on Lilley’s later series, but at least he’s telling his stories.

Perhaps the reason why we end up inundated with inane reality shows is because we feel that’s all we deserve. Deep down, we are in awe of Breaking Bad because it is so foreign to us, a story of sustained quality, and we could never achieve such things on our screens. Any attempt at lifting the standards is tolerated briefly, before being ripped apart at the hint of a stumble, because our TV screens can’t have nice things.

Top of the Lake is an interesting prospect, as it was initially meant to be a co-production between the ABC and the Sundance Channel, but our wonderful national broadcaster pulled their funding when Elisabeth Moss – an American – was cast in the lead. Never mind that David Wenham – famously Australian, famously SeaChange – was in one of the other major roles, the parochial ego on display was abominable as the ABC yanked their funding, and the production ended up between Sundance and UKTV, as a subsidiary of the BBC. A show that we could rightfully call ours was instead looked on from afar, with all its lush cinematography, psychologically complex narrative and star-studded cast.

Lo and behold, when the series raked in the acclaim, it was all about how ‘we’ had so many great roles in the show, and ‘we’ were integral to its inception, and ‘we’ should be so proud to be associated with a show that was receiving award-recognition in the US. Hideous.

This is not unusual though, and it’s shameful for that reason. We do deserve better. But I think our obsession with telling distinctly ‘Australian’ stories, as Knight emphasised, gets in the way of just telling distinct stories.  I didn’t find any identification in his portrait of an ‘Australian’ tale, but I don’t have to. This speaks to the heart of so much in Australian culture, in that we are forever seeking to define and lock down what we perceive as an elusive identity – an identity so fragile that one show might throw it awry.

It’s all backwards. ABC’s regulations for the development of TV shows stipulates stories that speak to an Australian identity, much like the Miles Franklin does for books, yet this shoehorns the potential for ideas into a narrow, jingoistic agenda. The identity does not dictate the story, the story defines the identity.

Through accumulation and implication over years and decades of storytelling, maybe then we might be able to discover if there’s some key national idea contained within our stories. But there doesn’t have to be. Surely a greater thing would be that our nation, our culture, our storytelling selves are all comfortable with all stories, stories that don’t have to add up to a conforming ideal.

But enough with the lowest acceptable standards for television please. We’re selling ourselves short.

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