This article was originally published 15 January 2021, and last updated 10 September 2021.
Australian TV productions were seriously delayed by COVID-19 last year, but like screen industries all over the world ours managed to forge (cautiously) ahead so we’d have shows to watch in 2021. While some of these are yet to be given airdates, here are some that shine brightly on the radar so far.
Vague trends emerge, including a real diversity of casts and key creatives; female-led stories and quite a few murder mysteries. Thankfully, the comic element seems present in many of the dramas (even the one about euthanasia and the one set in a psychiatric unit.)
Doctors, medical settings and teenage pregnancies recur, as do complicated family dynamics, country town communities and picturesque regional locations. What this says about the national psyche is anyone’s guess. Our history both recent and further back is also re-examined, with stories inspired by real experiences in the recent 2019/20 disastrous bushfires (Fires, ABC) to some innovative period dramas from the 1980s newsroom of The Newsreader (ABC) to way back in the 1850s goldfields from a Chinese perspective in New Gold Mountain (SBS).
Wakefield (ABC and ABC iview)
Jungle Entertainment’s eight-part drama Wakefield premiered at Easter and it deals creatively and sensitively with some tricky subject matter, including the fine line between sanity and insanity. Created and co-written by veteran TV screenwriter Kristen Dunphy, and inspired by her own experiences in psych units, this ambitious drama has the hallmarks of deep understanding.
Set in the Blue Mountains and exploring mental illness, Wakefield stars Rudi Dharmalingam (who was excellent in British marital drama Split) as a gifted psychiatric nurse, alongside Geraldine Hakewilll, Ryan Corr, Harriet Dyer, Wayne Blair and Mandy McElhinney.
Production Credit: Wakefield is a Jungle Entertainment production in partnership with BBC studios for the ABC. Major production investment from Screen Australia in association with the ABC. Financed in association with Screen NSW. Executive Producers Chloe Rickard, Jason Burrows and Kristen Dunphy. Co-Executive Producer Sam Meikle. Series Producers Shay Spencer and Ally Henville. ABC Executive Producers Que Minh Luu and Sally Riley. Writers Kristen Dunphy, Sam Meikle, Joan Sauers and Cathy Strickland. Directors Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt.
Doctor Doctor, Season 5 (Nine) from 28 April.
Okay, so these days the Australian dramas offered up by the free to air commercial broadcasters don’t have quite the cultural cache of those made by the ABC, SBS and streamers, but they’re still an important part of the landscape. They may veer close to soap or broad comedy at times, but they continue to play well to certain audiences, even if the heyday of prime time Australian linear TV is behind us.
As Nine programmer Hamish Turner has said, Doctor, Doctor is ‘…back for its 5th season, does really well internationally, and [has] strong cross-platform numbers for us.’
The story of an arrogant big city heart surgeon Hugh (Rodger Corser) forced to become a small town doctor, the drama features a regular ensemble cast of Nicole da Silva, Ryan Johnson, Tina Bursill and Hayley McElhinney, with this season adding to the mix Zoe Ventoura, Lincoln Younes, Darren McMullen, John Waters, Rishikesh Shukre, Chantelle Jamieson.
The synopsis says: ‘When the Knight family and the entire town of Whyhope are plunged into crisis, all eyes turn to Hugh to save them. Forced to relocate to a veterinary clinic after the discovery of asbestos in the hospital, matters are further complicated when high-flying council administrator Sharna Bahtt (Chantelle Jamieson) arrives in town, simultaneously sacking Meryl as mayor (Tina Bursill) and setting her sights on Hugh.The flames of romance continue to be stoked when newly single Penny (Hayley McElhinney) arrives back in town, forcing Hugh to grapple again with his feelings for her and a potential relationship with Sharna. With the hospital on the brink of permanent closure, his mother arrested for fraud, and a love triangle looming, will Whyhope’s bad boy be the Messiah? Or is it all a recipe for an even bigger disaster?’
So much drama for one small town! Doctor Doctor is based on an original idea by Tony McNamara (The Great) and Ian Collie. It’s produced by Easy Tiger Productions for Nine with the assistance of Screen NSW and Screen Australia.
Amazing Grace (Nine Now)
The first series of Amazing Grace has just finished broadcasting on Nine in the Wednesday night slot about to be taken over by Doctor Doctor. It’s still available on catchup and worth a look. It’s a sensitive female-dominated medical drama with Kate Jenkinson and Sigrid Thornton as strong-willed daughter and high-powered mother.
The Playmaker series follows frazzled but empathetic midwife Grace (Jenkinson, who is always wonderful) who works in an unconventional birthing unit. (Thankfully she’s far less ditzy than Offspring’s Nina Proudman, a comparison this show is bound to experience.) Complications ensue when the daughter Grace gave up for adoption arrives on the doorstep, heavily pregnant. We watched the first episode and found the performances affecting and the story engaging with a soundtrack heavily encouraging of tears.
Writers include Jonathan Gavin (Offspring), Ainslie Clouston (Playing For Keeps), writer and executive producer Sarah Smith (Love Child), set-up director and co-executive producer Shawn Seet (Love Child, Reckoning, Hungry Ghosts), producer Diane Haddon (The Commons, Reckoning, The Code) and executive producers David Maher and David Taylor (Love Child, Bloom, The Commons), plus Nine’s Andy Ryan.
Back to the Rafters (Amazon Prime)
A revival of the incredibly popular family drama series Packed to the Rafters, originally aired on Channel Seven between 2008 and 2013, Back to the Rafters picks up six years after the last season and will screen later this year on Amazon Prime. It’s commissioned by Amazon Studios and produced by Seven Studios. Created and written by Bevan Lee, with Julie McGauran as Executive Producer and Chris Martin-Jones as Series Producer.
Returning cast includes Rebecca Gibney, Erik Thomson, Hugh Sheridan, Angus McLaren, Michael Caton, George Houvardas, and Georgina Haig who plays Rachel Rafter (replacing Jessica Marais).
‘Dave and Julie have created a new life in the country with youngest daughter Ruby, while the older Rafter children face new challenges and Grandpa Ted struggles to find his place. As Dave enjoys his new-found freedom, Julie must reconcile her responsibilities to the family.’
This one arrived on New Year’s Day and everyone seems to be loving it, including our critic Mel Campbell. The ten-part series produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond was the Aussie streaming service’s biggest premiere to date with viewing records broken, according to Stan, who’ve just announced a second series will go ahead.
Filmed in Sydney during the pandemic, the story follows a high achieving teenage girl (Nathalie Morris) who has a surprise baby, causing complications for two families, including her mother, played by Claudia Karvan who is also co-creator and producer. The dialogue feels real, the issues aren’t laboured and part of the show’s pleasure lies in seeing the adults behaving with less maturity than the kids.
A second series of Bump is in production, probably dropping during the summer break, and a third has been commissioned, as well as a spin-off series, Year Of, featuring some of the characters we’ve already met.
The Stan Original Series is produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond’s John Edwards and Dan Edwards with major production investment from Screen Australia in association with Stan. Financed with support from Screen NSW. ITV Studios will manage international sales.
The End (Fox Showcase from 2 Feb)
The cast and proven producing talent behind this ten-part Foxtel Originals series makes it well worth anticipation. Frances O’Connor stars as a British doctor specialising in Palliative Care on the Gold Coast. Back in the UK, her recently widowed mother, Edie (Dame Harriet Walter), tries to kill herself and fails spectacularly. Kate realises she’s going to have to move Edie out to Australia and nobody’s happy about it.
The intergenerational dramedy from See Saw Films (Top of the Lake) is ‘a story about the right to die and what makes life worth living,’ which sounds heavy but isn’t necessarily depressing. It also stars Noni Hazlehurst, Luke Arnold, Alex Dimitriades, Brooke Satchwell, Robyn Nevin, Brendan Cowell and John Waters. The End is created and written by Samantha Strauss and directed by Jessica M. Thompson and Jonathan Brough.
Aftertaste (ABC and ABC iview, premiered 3 February)
This six-part foodie comedy drama comes from Closer Productions. It follows a volatile celebrity chef (Erik Thomson, who also produces) who returns in disgrace to the Adelaide Hills, where the only person interested in him is his outspoken 19-year-old pastry cook niece (Natalie Abbott). The angry white middle-aged bloke must forge an alliance, and rethink his entitled ways, if he’s going to crawl back into relevance. Judging from the trailer this looks like a lot of fun and Thomson is always incredibly relatable, though watching him play nasty is not so familiar. Aftertaste also stars Rachel Griffiths, Wayne Blair, Susan Prior, Peter Carroll and Remy Hii.
Production credits: A Closer production with major production investment from Screen Australia in association with the South Australian Film Corporation and financed with support from the ABC. Producers: Rebecca Summerton and Erik Thomson. Co-producer Matthew Bate. Executive Producers: Julie De Fina and Rachel Griffiths. ABC Executive Producer: Rebecca Anderson. International Distributor: ABC Commercial.
New Gold Mountain (SBS, from 13 October 2021)
SBS has called this four-part murder mystery series its most ambitious drama yet, and its first Australian period drama. Delayed due to COVID it will now appear in October 2021. Set in the Bendigo Goldfields in 1855, the story explores the history of the Australian gold rush from the perspective of Chinese miners. Yoson An (Mulan, Dead Lucky) stars as the charismatic headman of the Chinese mining camp who suddenly finds himself struggling to maintain the fragile harmony between Chinese and European diggers and authorities when a murdered European woman is discovered to have links with the Chinese community.
The cast includes Vikings’ Alyssa Sutherland, Christopher James Baker from True Detective, Dan Spielman (The Code), and Mabel Li (The Tailings). The series is directed by Corrie Chen whose funny Instagram updates suggest it was an extremely tough but rewarding shoot.
Chen has said in the media release: ‘Bold, ruthless, entertaining and darkly humorous, New Gold Mountain is the seminal immigration story that will redefine our perception of frontier Australia. As an immigrant and non-European settler, I am particularly excited to be directing a show that will finally let me put Chinese-Australian cowboys on screen and revising the canon of the classic Western.’
New Gold Mountain is written by creator Peter Cox and writers Benjamin Law, Yolanda Ramke, Greg Waters and Pip Karmel. Produced by Kylie du Fresne and Elisa Argenzio. A Goalpost Television production for SBS. Major production investment from Screen Australia in association with SBS. Financed with support from Film Victoria with Screen NSW. All3media International is the global partner on the show.
This idea feels familiar but that’s not saying it’s a bad one. Prolific TV co-creator Imogen Banks always knows what she’s doing. Premiering some time on Channel Seven in 2021 is Endemol Shine’s new action-drama filmed on location in and around Broken Hill and based on real-life stories of the heroes in the Royal Flying Doctor Service as they navigate their dramatic professional and personal lives. The cast includes Logie Award-winning actors Stephen Peacocke and Rob Collins, as well as Emma Hamilton, Justine Clarke and Ash Ricardo.
Co-created by Banks, Mark Fennessy and Ian Meadows, the series is produced by Banks and Sara Richardson, written by Ian Meadows, Claire Phillips, Adrian Russell Wills and Jon Bell and directed by Jennifer Leacey, Jeremy Sims and Adrian Russell Wills with Endemol Shine Australia’s Mark Fennessy and Carl Fennessy and Seven’s Julie McGauran as executive producers. Major production investment from Seven Network in association with Screen Australia. Financed with support from Screen NSW through the Made in NSW Fund and the Regional Filming Fund.
Total Control, Series 2 (ABC and ABC iview)
The first series of political drama Total Control, from Blackfella films, and starring Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths, was a big hit for the ABC in 2019. This year they’ll be back in the corridors of power where Indigenous political newcomer Alex (Mailman) is not so new anymore. She will face the ultimate test in a democratic system: going to the polls.
‘Alex’s passionate determination to make things better for her people appears doomed to failure. She turns her back on the entrenched ways of doing politics and declares she’ll stand for her home electorate as an Independent. As the pressure on Alex intensifies, she will have to make a choice, between her own integrity and her increasingly desperate and dangerous ambition.’
This series will see Wayne Blair signing on to direct and a team of writers including Stuart Page, Larissa Behrendt, Angela Betzien, Pip Karmel and Nakkiah Lui.
Copping it Black (SBS and NITV)
From the producing team who gave us Mystery Road, and coming to SBS in late 2021, Copping it Black will follow detective Toni Alma, who is assigned to investigate a suspicious car accident in Perdar Theendar, the Indigenous community she left as a child, and never looked back on until now. Clues will lead back to her own family, leading her to navigate her way between past and present, the complexities of the Indigenous art world and her own self-doubt.
The series will be directed by Erica Glynn and Steven McGregor (who have also written the scripts with Danielle MacLean) and is a Bunya and CAAMA production for SBS and SBS on demand, with the support of Screen Australia Indigenous Department and French company APC studios as well as Screen Territory.
The Newsreader (ABC and ABC iview)
The new 6×60 minute series from Werner Films Production is created and written by Michael Lucas (Offspring) and stars Anna Torv and Sam Reid as reporters in a commercial television newsroom in 1986, which is great setting for smart workplace drama.
‘Dale Jennings (Reid) is a diligent young reporter, desperate to become a newsreader. Helen Norville (Torv) is a notoriously ‘difficult’ star newsreader determined to build credibility. Paired together over three months, Dale and Helen will cover an extraordinary chain of news events— from the shock of the Challenger explosion, to the hype of Halley’s Comet, to the complexities of the AIDS crisis. From messy beginnings, a deep bond is formed that will upend their lives and transform the very fabric of the nightly news bulletin. This is a story of a grand, unconventional relationship in a world on the cusp of change.’
Our reviewer, Mel Campbell, gave the show 4.5 out of 5 stars and said: ‘This enjoyable, sophisticated series reminded me of the underrated show Halt and Catch Fire, which is set in the US computer industry at around the same time (and streaming now on SBS On Demand). The Newsreader is at its best when it conveys the mingled stress, thrill and intimacy of working closely and creatively under pressure.’
Fires (ABC and ABC iview) from Sunday 26 September
Created by Tony Ayres and Belinda Chayko, with Andrea Denholm and Liz Watts producing, this six-part serialised anthology drama series is drawn from true stories of Australia’s recent megafire bushfire survivors. Chayko is writing alongside Jacquelin Perske, Mirrah Foulkes, Steven McGregor and Anya Beyersdorf and the writing talent alone suggests this will be gritty, tough and resonant, with characters including volunteer firefighters, families who lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones and people who had to make agonising decisions about whether to stay or flee.
The Unusual Suspects (SBS and SBS on Demand from 3 June, 8.30pm)
Produced by Aquarius Films’ Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford (Lion) and set in Sydney’s glamorous Eastern suburbs, this is a four-part heist caper series about four women from very different walks of life who team up to right the wrongs that have been done to them. The Unusual Suspects marks the first major representation of Filipino-Australians on our screens.
It stars Aina Dumlao (Sanzaru, Ballers), Miranda Otto and Michelle Vergara Moore. The series is directed by Natalie Bailey and Melvin Montalban.
Our reviewer Merryana Salem found the show refreshing, authentic and loads of fun. She wrote:
The Filipina women at the beating heart of the show aren’t there just to present a post-racial narrative. They are life coaches, nannies, cleaners and millionaire business women pushing the plot forward with determination, brilliance, and a whole lot of gossiping. Their difference is not post-racial decoration, but a dynamic reality brought to life through a humanising, humorous script that playfully refuses to gloss over the realities of class and race for Filipina-Australians.
Eden (Stan), showing from 11 June
Eden, is a new eight-part Stan Original Series ‘inspired by the iconic beauty of the town of Byron Bay’ and shot in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. Created by emerging writer-director Vanessa Gazy (Highway) it follows the disappearance of a young woman which triggers a devastating chain of events which lays bare the dark, hidden heart of paradise.
Eden is produced by Every Cloud Productions’ Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, and the creator of the UK cult hit Skins, Bryan Elsley, and stars a diverse cast of young actors led by Sophie Wilde and BeBe Bettencourt (The Dry), alongside Keiynan Lonsdale (The Flash), Cody Fern (American Horror Story), Cassandra Sorrell (The Ugliest Duckling), Claude Jabbour (Stateless), Alexandria Steffensen (Happy Feet), Christopher James Baker (Ozark) and Samuel Johnson (Molly).
Acclaimed filmmaker John Curran (Bloom) served as set-up director on the series and Mirrah Foulkes and Peter Andrikidis also direct. It looks lush and sexy and certainly won’t be accused of pandering to those who need entirely likeable characters.
Mel Campbell wrote in her review for us:
…But the clever thing about the series is the way each episode builds on the last: we see the same events several times from different characters’ perspectives, and travel back in time to find out what happened in Eden while Scout was away in New York – and even in some characters’ childhoods. Then the show leaps forward to reveal what happens after Hedwig’s disappearance. This looping, iterative narrative structure enriches our understanding of the characters, their motivations and the connections between them in a town of stark economic and social disparities.
The Tailings (SBS On Demand)
A 6x10mins murder mystery series filmed in Tasmania, directed by Stevie Cruz-Martin and produced by Liz Doran in association with 2Jons and Roar Films for SBS. The Tailings stars emerging actors Mabel Li and Tegan Stimson.
Here’s the synopsis: ‘When a man is found face down in the lake outside a remote tight-knit mining town, an inquest finds that the death was an accident – a verdict many people in town are happy to accept. However, the man’s daughter and a new school teacher start an investigation of their own, revealing more than they could ever have imagined.’
Iggy & Ace (SBS on Demand) from Thursday 9 Sept
A 6x10mins WA series about two young, gay alcoholics who live, work and play together and are inseparable until one of them joins Alcoholics Anonymous determined to get sober. It’s written by AB Morrison, produced by Hannah Ngo, and directed by Monica Zannetti and is A Lazy Susan Pictures production for SBS.
Want to send your television news and tips to our TV Content Lead? Email Rochelle@screenhub.com.au