We Kiwis do a lot of things better than, the Aussies. Television isn’t one of them. ANDREW JOHNSTONE takes a gander at some spiffing ocker shows.
Australia’s specialist public broadcast TV network SBS recently featured two New Zealand stories on its Facebook feed, the first being news of our Prime Minister’s historic pregnancy, the other being about NZ’s entry into the league of space fairing nations. The response was underwhelming, to say the least.
“Who cares about the PM of a country with half the population of Victoria,” said one correspondent. I couldn’t resist and replied that the actual population difference was a million in Victoria’s favour – hardly half. “Well, if you wanna be pedantic about it,” was the response.
As for the recent launch of a satellite into space from ground zero in Hawkes Bay, the commentary could not have been more dismissive. Things like “So what,” “Big yawn,” “Some little insignificant country sends junk into space,” thereby outlining something of the Australian attitude towards New Zealand.
While we are often dismissed by Australians, this ‘little country’ punches at a weight that can often disarm our neighbours, notably on the field of play, an arena Australia prides itself on more than any other.
A victory over any NZ side sends the Aussie media into raptures. A defeat is widely dismissed if reported at all, probably because a tiny nation bringing down the best the federation has to offer is too humiliating to contemplate. Otherwise, NZ competes shoulder to shoulder with Australia in most every other endeavour, including the sciences.
As one prominent Aussie commentator (Peter Fitzsimmons) recently said, “Where NZ goes, Australia eventually follows.” He was referring to NZ’s dedication to progressive politics. Public health services, universal franchise, welfare, homosexual rights, multiculturalism… just a few of the many social causes NZ tackled before Australia. Then there’s relationships between coloniser and the colonised.
Fraught though the relationship has often been, Maori have been standing alongside equal to their Pakeha brethren since 1840. Australia on the other hand has barely begun to address the mammoth list of grievous injustices set against the heavily marginalised Aborigine.
Perhaps the most glaring discrepancy between the two siblings has been economic. Wealth came easy to Australia, all they had to do was pull it from the ground. Iron, zinc, manganese, bauxite, llmenite, lithium, zircon, silver, nickel, lead… a veritable who’s who of valuable and in-demand minerals.
New Zealand had nothing of the sort, but it did have a temperate climate, plenty of rain and arable land and over the decades entrepreneurship and innovation have turned these less likely gifts into gold. As it goes now, NZ stands slightly ahead of Australia in all positive indicator lists, including wealth.
If there is one area where Australia is undisputed master it is the arts and entertainments. The first country to produce a full length feature film, The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906), it has long been a major international player in literature, film, fine art, music and television.
We have caught up in the film world thanks to Peter Jackson and his Weta group, but where they measure their international hits in the several dozens, we can count ours off in a handful. This goes for music, novels, A-List actors and as for television, they were selling shows into the US and British markets before we had a proper, fully functioning televisual broadcasting system. Remember Skippy The Bush Kangaroo?
Our small population means that our production output remains relatively low, and while we might be proud of the likes Shortland Street, The Almighty Johnsons and the excellent Brokenwood Mysteries, they barely stand against the annual tsunami of Australian product, much of which is genuinely world beating. This is by no means a conclusive list, just a few shows Witchdoctor would like to recommended.
Glitch is a science-fiction thriller/drama is set in the fictional Victorian town of Yoorana. One night, seven deceased men and women emerge fully reformed from their graves. Some are recently dead, others trace their origins back to the early days of European settlement and one of them, Kate Wills, is the recently deceased wife of local cop James Hayes who only just made peace with his grief.
With a new wife and baby on the way his feelings are conflicted to say the least, and on top of it all he has to contend with the other resurrected, a conniving pharmaceutical company CEO, the strange and obtuse Dr Elisha McKellar (who may or may not be the ally she claims to be) and the invisible barrier set around the town over which the resurrected cannot cross.
Also Vic, his superior from Shepparton. Vic comes down to Yoorana on a routine visit, spins on a coin and ends up trying to kill the undead. What the hell is going on?
All the mystery and action aside, Glitch derives its strength from carefully drawn characters and a few light touches courtesy of one Paddy Fitzsimmons. Made wealthy by his discovery of gold, the founding father of Yoorana was murdered by his wife and son and his quest to set right the wrongs of the past adds some entertaining Irish mischief to the proceedings.
Of special note are the opening titles, a beautifully rendered piece of symbolism that reminds us the place titles have in creating mood and atmosphere. Glitch is an excellent series and the first two seasons are up on Netflix with no word on a third as yet.
The Doctor Blake Mysteries is a period drama set in the Victorian city of Ballarat. Lucien Blake is a GP and Police surgeon who is struggling with PTSD, a condition inherited from his time as a prisoner of Japanese Imperial Army during WW2. Otherwise, it goes something like this: A murder is committed, police get it wrong, Lucien digs deeper and uncovers the real story.
A fairly standard ‘whodunit’ affair, it is a polished production that offers some nice insights into the mores of 1950s Australia. As for Lucien, he is a commendable sort. Despite his damaged psyche, he is a man of integrity determined to do the right thing. The result is compelling, entertaining and sometimes moving. Think The Brokenwood Mysteries without the self-deprecating humour and country music.
The good Doctor is nicely played by Australia’s favourite larrikin Craig McLachlan (Neighbours) whose future is under a cloud in light of recent allegations of sexual misconduct. As a result, production on Series 6 is currently on hold. Available on DVD at your local Library.
The Australian film experience could be summed up thus: Europeans are let loose on vast inhospitable continent to which they are poorly suited and under its relentless sun go mad. Walkabout (1971), Wake In Fright (1971), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Mad Max (1979), Alexandra’s Project (2003) and Wolf Creek (2005) are all fine examples of the ‘Cinema of Aussie Madness’ and the latter, a huge international hit, has been turned into a pretty handy TV series.
If you have seen the two Wolf Creek movies you’ll know the drill – psychopath wanders the outback in search of prey to torture and kill. Season One begins with a family of American tourists befriending someone they shouldn’t. A huge, hot, dusty and rollicking revenge fantasy ensues. Wolf Creek is as Aussie as Neighbours if your neighbour is Charlie Manson. Two seasons and on DVD at your local Library.
Kiwi A-List actor and Aussie film regular Sam Neil has described NZ film as ‘the cinema of unease’, referring to our penchant for brooding narratives set under wild skies, and with this in mind Tasmanian mystery/thriller The Kettering Incident could almost be a Kiwi production. What with the jagged mountains, dense bush, grey skies, wild seas and small communities living on the edge, it looks and feels very familiar.
British based medical specialist Dr Anna Macy has a strange turn and in a kind of daze hops on a plane and ‘wakes up’ back home in Kettering, an insular and somewhat feral community on the south coast of Tasmania. Anna is a bit bewildered to say the least, but she knows one thing, she has problems and she is determined to find out why she is the way she is.
Up in the hills behind the town there are strange lights in the night sky and in the town itself there is a conspiracy afoot that stretches back a couple of decades and begins with the disappearance of Anna’s childhood friend Lucy. Many still consider Anna to be the main suspect.
As for her father, the local cop, he is up to his neck in historical bad deeds and he does not want his daughter fishing around least his spotless reputation be sullied. Then there is the scientist trying to unravel some unusual data related to the strange events up in the hills. As the body count grows, so does Anna’s confusion.
It is compelling, obtuse, and just as we think we are getting somewhere, it all comes to an end leaving us on a knife-edge with a pocketful of unanswered questions. Is it aliens or a sinister government plot? And what about the strange blood disorder that’s infecting the locals? A trial series that turned into a surprise hit, a second season has been rushed into production and will be with us soon. The first nine episodes are up on Lightbox.
Paranoia is a major theme in a lot of Australian drama; not surprising given the nations proximity to Indonesia. The world’s fourth most populous country has been an uneasy neighbour for the great Southern land, what with it’s turbulent history of war, revolution, genocide, strongman dictators and sometimes militant brand of Islam.
In response, Australia has invested heavily in defence and its sister apparatus, covert operations. The Indonesian problem has deeply affected the Australian psyche and as a result the nation has become something of a master at making espionage/conspiracy type thrillers.
The Code is a two-season thriller centred on crusading journalist Ned Banks and his brother Jessie, a computer hacker extraordinaire with personality problems. Ned takes an interest in a story involving two Aboriginal teens who are critically injured when they crash into a truck linked to a mysterious ‘research site’. As he teases out the truth Ned opens a door that everyone from the Aussie PM down wants to keep firmly shut. Kiwi Lucy Lawless features.
In Season Two, Ned uncovers a paedophile ring operating on the dark web. The hunt leads Ned and Jessie to West Papua where it turns into a very ugly business indeed. Featuring the talents of A-List Aussie actors Anthony LaPaglia, Sigrid Thornton and Kiwi Robyn Malcolm, it’s is a rip roaring adventure full of intrigue, some really bad pedo types and a solid critiquing of Indonesia’s illegal occupation of this territory. Yep, those Indonesians are bad, bad ,bad. Available on DVD at your local Library.
With a similar premise to The Code, a crusading Canberra journalist uncovers a conspiracy involving the Chinese and American governments. There are nefarious spies, more double dealing politicians, computer hackers and an increasingly worrisome body count. Secret City is a six-part mini-series that runs like a rocket, and China is an awesome bad guy.
In the Australian news a lot lately, Aussie’s number one trading partner is suspected of interfering with Australian civil society. Money aside, it seems China is fuelling the big country’s existential dread in ways that Indonesia hasn’t even dreamed of yet. Sure as hell makes for terrific fiction. Available on DVD at your local Library.
About the time New Zealand set about decriminalising homosexuality in the mid-1980s, gangs were roaming known gay hangouts around Sydney’s Eastern suburbs and killing any poor sod they happened across. Estimates of the murders range from 30 to 80 but no one really knows as the NSW police were sometimes complicit and often indifferent.
Detective Tori Lustigmans is haunted by the disappearance of her brother in the 1990s and when she is assigned a new case centered on murdered homosexual men she uncovers a trail that leads her into the past and a can of worms that could derail many a police career.
Tight, taut and atmospheric, Deep Water is a superior mini-series and features a bevy of the best kind of nasties – ignorant young men on the rampage. They so deserve to get their comeuppance but I’ll say no more, you’ll just have to watch and see. Available on DVD at your local Library. (It took until the late 1990s for homosexuality to be decriminalised across the entirety of the Australian Federation).
Top Of The Lake is a series that starts in the South Island of New Zealand and ends up in the suburbs of Sydney where it becomes Top Of The Lake: China Girl.
Helmed by ex-pat Kiwi and iconic filmmaker Jane Campion, Top Of The Lake is all kinds of weird and through it all Campion and her co-creators maintain a clever satirical dialogue that takes aim at middle class social mores, pretensions and fashions.
Not the easiest of viewing and certainly not for everyone, the Top Of The Lake franchise is mostly audacious and sometimes hilarious. The whole enterprise benefits from having the very busy Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaids Tale) in the lead role and as for Nicole Kidman’s turn in Season Two – devastating. Watch it on Lightbox.
A series that was cancelled after one season does not make a dunger. It’s actually a rip-roaring thriller about a police detective on the trail of his murdered partner’s killers.
Detective Gary Hyde is assisted by Claire McKenzie, a special investigator from New Zealand Immigration. WTF? Yes indeed. She gets involved after improperly issued NZ passports come into play.
Claire is all kinds of James Bond and probably makes the New Zealand Department of Immigration look way more exciting than it actually is. Anyways, they uncover a vast conspiracy that leads to… you guessed it, Indonesia, a country filled with sinister men armed with semi-automatic rifles. Yep, every suspicion every Australian has ever had about that land is confirmed. China is also featured and yes, they are suspicious buggers as well. Available on DVD at your local Library.