In the golden age of Hollywood particular studios were well known for their excellence in specific genres. Universal delivered wonderful horror films, MGM glorious technicolour musicals and Warner Brothers gritty crime dramas. Then, with the advent of television cinema changed, the old studio structure broke down, wunderkind directors and their producer associates shopped their cinematic vision from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox, via United Artists, Sony etc etc. There was no one corporate entity who could claim to be the wellspring par excellence of a specific form of the moving image.
Then, along came HBO.
Within a seemingly short time Home Box Office created a slew of seriously wonderful television dramas that have (I would argue) instituted a golden age in American TV not seen since the 1960s. ‘Oz’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Rome’, ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Generation Kill’, ‘Treme’, ‘Dead Wood’, ‘True Blood’, ‘Treme’, ‘Carnivàle’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ constitute a body of work that the previously mentioned studios would be hard put to match qualitatively in the 1930s through to the 1950s. These are mature and intelligent television programs when if anything the general TV environment has been been dominated by the so-called reality show, leading to such mind-numbingly low brow product as ‘Jersey Shores’. As one section of the TV watching public can be challenged and entertained by a vision of a Marine unit’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the day to day problems faced by a New Jersey crime family, a more populist and undoubtedly less discerning audience is happy to be fed the TV equivalent of a large Big Mac meal as they gorge on so-called ‘American Idols’, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and then told everything they do is validated thanks to Oprah Whinfrey’s pop-psych mega-rich bullshit.
Now whilst this may sound like a paean to the elite level of American television culture, what is my actual concern is where does this place the Australian TV industry and its viewers. Where is our ‘Treme’, our ‘Oz’? Whilst there has been a slavish and eager attitude by the commercial networks to replicate the baser aspects of US TV product, or an almost gentle reassuring approach to drama through well trod genres (the crime show, the medical drama, the family soap), hardly anyone has fronted up and given us anything close to the best of HBO. ‘East West 101’ from SBS has been a rare exception, with a gritty realism drawn from such predecessors such as ‘Wildside’ and ‘Phoenix’. However this is an object lesson in what is a sorry comparative lesson in Australian TV culture. The ABC hasn’t delivered anything like these programs for years, and its dramadies have been based on the same tired old genres as the commercial networks. ‘Rake’ might be an entertaining diversion but how many law programs do we need (remember ‘MDA’?). At least they aren’t pumping out the utterly banal Logie friendly ‘Packed To The Rafter’ type of domestic drama. However our public television networks can do better.
Foxtel’s ‘Showcase’ has made a minor effort thanks to the likes of ‘Spirited’ and ‘Satisfaction’ however their supposedly more meaty dramas ‘Love My Way’ and ‘Tangle’ have trod paths that are depressingly familiar (i.e. family angst) and only one step removed from soap operas. They are not cinematic in terms of their narrative nor in their complexity of character and direction. Whilst some may argue there are no bigger issues than what happens around the kitchen sink or the dinner table domestic tragedies and the minutiae of invented people barely different from us makes for unsatisfying TV.
So, where are the Australian TV shows willing to look at our past and our present, our fantasies and our realities through a 12 part, four or five season well-financed and creatively intelligent vision that is uniquely ours? The Kennedy Miller mini-series of the 80s were a good start but they haven’t been embellished on or used as a developmental phase. ‘Underbelly’ has used the semblance of HBO style without the substance, whilst local movies such as ‘The Boys’, ‘Animal Kingdom’ and ‘Snowtown’ have given us movies which could be the kernel for such TV programming. Our history and our current society are rich veins for HBO-like mining if only there was similar bravery and fiscal liberalism from our production houses. Until someone rises to the challenge our local television landscape will be relatively barren, populated by vapid reality shows and innocuous soaps, and viewers like myself will continue to devour the likes of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Treme’ and ‘True Blood’.