Australian TV: all steak, no sizzle

I like to consider myself an advocate for Australian content and this year there has been some really good stuff out there. 2016 has delivered strong and innovative works so far, Abe Forsythe’s film Down Under and Girl Asleep from Rosemary Myers are just two of a number of projects that have breathed fresh life into Australian film. While, in the TV landscape, the ABC and SBS continue their commitment to championing new Australian stories, we’ve had another brilliant series of The Code, new true crime mini-series Deep Water, and a fresh, quirky comedy, Rosehaven.

What a shame then that this level of commitment does not seem to be able to cross over into prime-time commercial network television. With the so-called ‘Golden Age of Television’ being experienced all over the world, Australia once again is left on the outside looking in. How long should audiences have to wait for Australia to catch up? And why aren’t network executives demanding better? Australian audiences deserve better than tired, contrived content and it’s no surprise that Network television is being abandoned in favour of Foxtel and Netflix in greater numbers than ever before.

For some reason there seems to be a rash of offending content on screens right now. Channel 7 has a much-hyped vehicle for Jessica Mauboy to awkwardly and uncomfortably sing her way through, Channel 9 has a ‘new’ rural medical drama for Roger Corser and Channel 10 has another female driven, Michael Lucas written, romantic dramedy.

The Channel 7 production, the Jessica Mauboy led The Secret Daughter (Monday nights at 8.30pm). Everything seems half-cooked and as a result the entire series feels like a waste of good talent. Mauboy clearly has talent to burn and the series has obviously been built around her personal skills and personality, but that’s probably the nicest thing you can say about it. Mauboy plays Billie, a country pub singer, who may or may not be the secret daughter of the mega-rich (and mega white) Jack Norton, played by the same Colin Friels audiences would have seen in any show he’s been in since 1995.

With no real plot to support them, the whole enterprise comes across as just another soap opera, and not in a good way. With storylines and dialogue this predictable it makes it hard for audiences to relate to or care about what happens to the characters. Jessica Mauboy often comes across as disinterested and her presence in the show lacks energy and authenticity. I’m sure that someone had the idea to add the musical numbers to try and jack up the energy levels, but they feel uncomfortable, the songs have been clumsily shoehorned in without any real consideration to the overall trajectory of the story.

Roger Corser swoops in to save the day for Channel 9’s Doctor Doctor, his characterization of bad-boy surgeon Hugh Knight is the saving grace in a show that, while well written, is ground audiences have trodden before. It’s McLeods Daughters meets A Country Practice, and I think the show’s willingness to accept that it’s not re-inventing the wheel makes it watchable.

The series follows Hugh Knight as he reluctantly returns to his hometown of Whyhope as the prodigal son. Conceited and confident of his professional gifts, he’s gotten himself a reputation in Sydney after his sex, booze and party drug-filled lifestyle gets out of control. His antics see him suspended and exiled to Whyhope to serve out his sentence as a GP at the medical clinic. Nothing about this is new for Australian audiences, we’ve seen these tales of rural redemption played out on screen before.

Channel 10 has served audiences up a new Offspring to salivate over, a re-imagination of Zoe Foster-Blake’s 2014 novel, The Wrong Girl. I was worried about how The Wrong Girl would work, there have been a huge number of changes made to this text in order to get it ready for the screen as a television series, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s occasionally funny with some charming performances (Jessica Marais has obviously attended the Asher Keddie academy of physical comedy for her role as Lily), and has done a good job setting up some promising conflicts for the rest of the season. The characters aren’t as well-defined, intricate, or captivating as those delivered to us by writer Michael Lucas in Offspring, but I guess you can’t always get what you want.

 Regardless of their rate of success, none of these shows feel like they’re bringing anything new to the Australian television landscape, and while I’m sure that there is a portion of the population who are perfectly satisfied to continue to tolerate what’s being served up, its far past time commercial network executives figured out that they’re in an environment now where their content needs to show true evolution or prepare to die a slow and painful death.

 

 

 

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Nerve: Heavy on visuals, light on plot

nerve

In what could be considered to be the best attempt thus far to portray the internet on screen, Nerve endeavours to caution its audiences against the dangers of online immersion but succeeds mostly in presenting how thrilling it can be to embrace it.

With their adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 young-adult novel of the same name, the directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, return to familiar fodder. The duo are the same minds behind the thought-provoking 2010 documentary Catfish, which was an entirely different take on the allure and malleability of internet identity that Nerve attempts to tackle.

For Vee (Emma Roberts), an artistic and introverted high-school senior dreaming of leaving her Staten Island home behind in order to pursue her art, a braver version of herself seems to be the perfect plan. So when a friend introduces her to a real-time internet game in which “Players” accept dares from “Watchers” to win money and prestige, Vee can taste her ticket to a new life. It certainly doesn’t hurt matters much that her initial dare is to kiss a stranger, and that the stranger in question is a totally dreamy Dave Franco, and the two soon pair up.

The “Watchers” can’t get enough of them, submitting dares of increasing recklessness for increased cash until it becomes apparent that the two if them are trapped. The details of why and how this happens aren’t as clear as I would have liked, somehow, the people who are mysteriously filling bank accounts can also immediately drain them also? But the film has bigger problems, the screenplay lets down the actors immensely, left with little more to work with than a long line of (admittedly pretty great) stunts before petering out to a contrived ‘they all lived happily-ever after’ end.

The film is visually great though, the graphics added to give the audience the “Watcher” experience are done very well. Shots framed as if the audience is inside of phones or computers, overlaid with text and imagery allowing the audience to be a part of the characters’ online interactions is the most realistic depiction of online identity thus far. For me, this gives Nerve an edge over other films, like 2010’s Chatroom and this year’s Netflix release, XOXO, where the use of the internet becomes central to the plot. In Nerve, the cinematography allows the audience to become “watchers” while watching in a very naturalistic way. New York City is the perfect setting for a film that needs to have a high-stakes feel and the abundance of neon lighting lets the audience feel that we could easily be looking at the future.

Roberts and Franco have a palpable chemistry and their interactions are electric, they just don’t occur often enough. Too much time appears to have been spent on the graphics and the feel of the visual aspect of the film, and as a result the screenplay has suffered. Without much to go on, Roberts comes across for the bulk of the film like a wide-eyed innocent, which makes it all the more confusing at the end of the film, when it becomes apparent that she has orchestrated the downfall of the game that has thus far kept her powerless. Franco does his job ably, his character’s trajectory of mysterious bad-boy redeemed is a path well trodden. Disappointingly, supporting characters get almost nothing from the script, Juliette Lewis is under utilised as she frantically runs around in the background as Vee’s unfathomably clueless mother.

I enjoyed this film. It’s fun and thrilling and even if it does start to take itself a bit too seriously towards the end. Whether fortuitous or by design, Nerve will appeal to the Pokemon Go generation, where masses of people are eagerly signing up for these games in order to lose themselves in an augmented reality. The film looks a lot better than its characters’ sound, but the way the film breaks ground in its depiction of new media allowed me to forgive the screenplay’s transgressions.There were moments where I felt like Nerve was about to head in a darker direction, it didn’t (probably to protect a rating that would allow allow maximum teen consumption) and I really wanted it to. Overall I felt like Nerve could have, and probably should have delved deeper, particularly given the relevance of its subject matter.