There were so many fantastic Australian shows on the box this year that no top-ten list could ever hope to contain them all.
Let’s just get it out of the way that Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan’s much-loved Deadloch didn’t make the list, with an intriguing premise fatally hamstrung by Kiwi actor Madeleine Sami’s perma-shouty performance. Send all hate mail to compiler Stephen A Russell …
10. While the Men are Away / Gold Diggers
This was a vintage year if you’re into bawdily feminist re-envisioning of our gate-keeper history, hence the double bill. The ABC’s potty-mouthed Gold Diggers is a patriarchal gaze-erasing panacea, with co-stars Claire Lovering and Danielle Walker, as Gert and Goldie, depicting horn dogs who can smell success in the Victorian gold fields.
Flash forward a century, and the Women’s Land Army is having a ball without all the bollocks in similarly spirited SBS show While the Men are Away. Emancipation has never laughed this hard.
9. Bad Behaviour
Uncomfortable viewing for anyone who has ever experienced the brutality of bullying while still a tender-hearted teen, this Stan miniseries adapted from Rebecca Starford’s confessional memoir by Pip Karmel and Magda Wozniak and directed by New Gold Mountain helmer Corrie Chen is a gut-punch. Set in a private school summer camp, it’s painful to watch as nerdy scholarship student Jo McKenzie (Jana McKinnon) transforms turns on classmate Alice (Yerin Ha) under the influence of rich brat Portia (Markella Kavenagh), unpicking her self-wrought scars across two timelines.
Read our Bad Behaviour review.
8. Faraway Downs
We’re as surprised as anyone that Baz Luhrmann managed to resuscitate his risibly ocker, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman-led outback epic Australia, a box office fizzler in 2008, by making it longer. And yet this Disney+ miniseries, re-cut into six episodes, uncovers the real heart of the story: the insidious Stolen Generations erasure of Culture connection from kids like Nullah, a luminous turn by Brandon Walters. With more care given to the First Nations-led storylines by reinstating cut footage from two million-plus feet of film and by sticking to his guns on an abandoned tragic finale, Luhrmann leaps nimbly over the original’s daggier choices.
Read our Faraway Downs review.
7. Night Bloomers
While Australia has been killing it on the big screen with homegrown horrors like the Adelaide-based Philippou brothers’ Talk to Me, the genre with added bite hasn’t had quite as frightful a showing on the small screen, with Warwick Thornton’s Firebite a notable exception. So we were exhilarated by this SBS-commissioned, five-part anthology series of spooky stories told by filmmakers from the Korean diaspora. From Single Korean Female stalker vibes to mythical monsters lurking in the shadows (or pigging out in the fridge), it’s packed to the brim with sinister thrills.
Read our Night Bloomers review.
6. The Clearing
Australia’s seemingly insatiable craving for true crime showed no sign of abating in 2023, with this Disney+ adaptation of JP Pomare’s novel In the Clearing mirroring a monstrous Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s real child-snatching (and blonde bowl cut-enforcing) cult, The Family. Miranda Otto is magnificently menacing as Byrnes stand-in Adrienne in this creepy miniseries from showrunners Elise McCredie and Matt Cameron, with her brainwashed worshippers including Guy Pearce’s nefarious doctor and Kate Mulvaney as her vicious fixer. Blaze star Julia Savage is staggeringly good as a captive kid, as is Teresa Palmer as skittish mum Freya and The Twelve star Hazem Shamas as a rookie detective worn down by the case’s grim realities.
In a largely depressing year of spot-the-difference between the former government and the weak sauce current incumbents, the return of the ABC’s all-too-true excoriation of the internecine bureaucracy of the public service and the oft-dunderheaded, self-centred pollies they serve was a much-needed salve. Featuring a cavalcade of Australia’s comedic finest, including Rob Sitch, Celia Pacquola, Nina Oyama, Kitty Flanagan and Dilruk Jayashina, the never-ending vortex of nation-building projects going nowhere fast that they subsequently have to spin into success never gets stale.
Read our Utopia Season 5 review.
4. Safe Home
One in four Australian women has experienced shocking violence from an intimate partner in a grim crisis that, despite a near-constant stream of horrific news stories, never sparks the political will needed to back the on-the-ground support the epidemic requires. Which makes this frontline-set SBS miniseries vital viewing. Drawing on the real-life experiences of showrunner Anna Barnes, it features Sissy lead Aisha Dee as a young lawyer working in a cash-strapped family violence legal support centre in Melbourne. Virginia Gay and New Gold Mountain breakout star Mabel Li also appear. Confronting, it’s adeptly handled by director Stevie Cruz-Martin.
Read our Safe Home review.
3. Erotic Stories
Sex sells, they say, but not so much on the small screen. This raunchy yet surprisingly wholesome and very on-brand SBS anthology show upends that trend. Directed by Leticia Cáceres and Madeleine Gottlieb, it’s an emotionally rewarding exploration of everything from navigating consent, kinks and phone sex, to fine-line blurring between friends. The Secret Life of Us’ Catherine McClements, Deadloch’s Kate Box and Wentworth actor Danielle Cormack all appear, but perhaps the most striking story, penned by playwright Alistair Baldwin, features In Our Blood star Tim Draxl as a leather daddy overtly fetishising emerging actor with cerebral palsy Joel Lago’s leg brace-wearing character CJ.
Read our Erotic Stories review.
2. The Newsreader
The only other returning show to make this year’s list (honourable mention to season two of Love Me and four of Bump), this 80s-set big hair and bigger drama series from the ABC very nearly snatched the top spot, thanks to the astounding double act of Secret City star Anna Torv and Lambs of God lead Sam Reid. Playing in-demand commercial TV news anchors and hot topic couple Helen and Dale, he also has the hots for Rory Fleck Byrne’s Don Lane-like fellow closet case Gerry and she’s beginning to tire of his emotional drama, thrusting her into the path of infuriating network boss Charlie (Daniel Gillies). Effortlessly folding in Keating’s 1987 election win and the rise of Kylie Minogue via a scene-stealing cameo from Hunter Page-Lochard, it left us hanging for season three after upending the board in classic cliff-hanger fashion.
Queerstralia. Image: ABC.
We started this list with a double bill reframing oft-obscured history and we end it in much the same fashion, but this time with one show shining blindingly bright. After popping up in small roles in Get Krack!n and The Letdown, award-winning comedian Zoe Coombs Marr took on a seemingly insurmountable project for her first docuseries, tracing the gloriously arc of queer rights in Australia from pre-Invasion until now via horny heroes, snitching villains and staggering true stories. Magda Szubanski, Nayuka Gorrie, Hannah Gadsby, Crystal Love, Tony Ayres and more all pop up. Gorgeously empowering and intersectional, it’s led by Marr’s witty flair for silly, sassy, saucy and deceptively underplayed smart takes. A glorious monument to equal love.