What’s new in mainstream TV drama for 2020?

Is it still possible to make breakthrough television in Australia? The 2020 new Australian shows on mainstream media can be classy, but we are short on visceral daring.

There is plenty of muscle in the Australian drama productions on local screens across 2020, even though the schedules are dominated by familiar series. The full list contains children’s shows and ABC iView, which we will return to later. This is the staid end of the biz and it shows in the kind of content. 

Let’s start on a positive note. 

The ABC has managed to score not one but two premieres at the Berlin Film Festival 2020. Stateless is a genuinely new title, while Mystery Road is in its second series. There are only eight projects in Berlinale Series 2020; according to curator Julia Fidel the selection features ‘extraordinary narratives with distinctive style and chutzpah’.

Auntie is now fascinated with political thrillers set in the real-life processes of Canberra and/or Canberra mixed with the secret state, and takes on the story of four people in a desert detention centre. According to the release, they are ‘an airline hostess on the run from a dangerous cult, an Afghan refugee and his family facing persecution, a young father escaping a dead-end job and a bureaucrat running out of time to contain a national scandal.’

There is a neat deal in here – Stateless was created by Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie, and made by Matchbox Pictures in association with Dirty Films, owned by Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett (who also stars). It will be distributed around the world by parent company NBCUniversal. 

After Berlin, it launches on the ABC on March 1.

The ABC also allows itself to back off the present day by taking on Maralinga. Fallout, inspired by the series of atom bomb tests run by the British in the 1950s, nominally in partnership with the Menzies Government, finds the temporary duplication of the sun near Woomera too dull for television, and injects some human conflict with a dumb boss, an inquisitive woman meteorologist, and a legion of hostile eyes to trip Ewen Leslie’s stalwart fixer.

Fallout has a lot going for it. It is written and directed by Peter Duncan who was a key figure on Rake, as with writing, creating and directing credits, so he has a lot of experience in juggling humour, pickles, dumb systems, irony and true resilience. Expect a complex mix of satire and anger here. Besides, this is basically a true story, backed by Diamond Jim McClelland’s royal commission which provides tons of jawdropping detail. 

This is very much a Porchlight production, with Vincent Sheehan and Tanya Phegan producing while the company executive producers are Liz Watts and Anita Sheehan. The credits say ‘financed with support from the South Australian Film Corporation and Headgear Films.’

That is it so far for new adult television series. According to the ABC, there will be more. 

But it does seem that the ABC is still running with its Old Sock strategy which is about injecting more jubba juice into returning shows and powdering familiar faces for another round of presenting duties. Preformed shows include season four of Black Comedy, season three of Harrow, season three of Mustangs FC, season two of Mystery Road, Season four of Rosehaven and season two of The Heights.

The fact that this seems at all odd is a sad comment on our change-obsessed times. Not so long ago, audiences expected to grow old with a familiar series and went into rehab when they finished while sales agents were mocked at markets if they had less than 26 hours of anything. Remember when government support stopped after 65 episodes?

The task is to balance the valuable returning series with something new; there is no satisfactory mix because Auntie does not have enough dosh. 

SBS

It looks as if good things come in twos. SBS is publicly claiming a pair of new dramas as 2020 fare. 

Hungry Ghosts is a supernatural thriller set across three generations of Australian Vietnamese families tormented by a ghost accidentally released from a tomb in Vietnam. Matchbox has been on a substantial journey to understand supernatural psychology through Nowhere Boys and Glitch so the company is well equipped to deploy the riches of Asian ghost worlds.

The four episodes are directed by Shawn Seet, and written by Timothy Hobart, Michele Lee, Alan Nguyen, Jeremy Nguyen and John Ridley, who probably played scary games when they got frustrated. Margaret Chong line produced, with Stephen Corvini and Timothy Hobart doing the production honours for Matchbox, while Debbie Lee wrangled the SBS end. 

The saga of Chinese people in the gold rush has tempted writers for a long time and Goalpost Pictures has brought it to the screen. New Gold Mountain is written by Peter Cox, Benjamin Law and Yolande Frankel, the four part series is described as a revisionist western, is SBS’s first historical drama and the largest series it has ever commissioned. Seeing colonial Australia through Chinese eyes will be a salutary experience for those of us who grew up with jolly mining cliches. It is produced by Kylie du Fresne, Liam Heyen and Elisa Argenzio, and has an international sales agent in All3 Media. 

Stan

The Gloaming is already running on Stan, where the whole series is ready for a good binge on a really hot weekend as we crave the televisual equivalent of a fridge full of ice blocks. 

Vicky Madden follows The Kettering Incident with another unsettling exploration of Tasmania’s distinctive atmosphere, confidently building a genre of Tasmanian gothic, in which a long, infected timeframe is lashed together with crime, secret connections, dogged exploration and touches of the supernatural. 

The team for this is terrific. Madden wrote it with Irish writer and producer Peter McKenna. Directors are Michael Rymer, continuing a gritty, inventive career both here and in the US, Greg McLean whose craft and intelligence keeps bringing him back to horror with a necessary sense of genre, and Sian Davies who has crammed fourteen classy series into eleven years. The cast includes Emma Booth, Ewan Leslie and Aaron Pedersen, along with New Zealanders Rena Owen and Martin Henderson. Producers are John Molloy who hit the popular screens with Molly and arthouse with Boys in the Trees. Fiona McConaghy has been a wise head in the production system since Strictly Ballroom in 1992 and is temporarily relaxing from the angst of comedy in Rosehaven by wrangling crime from an astral dimension. 

Stan is also staking its claim to 2020 with The True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel off the Man Booker Prize-winning book by Peter Carey. Part of the fun is that the picture is anything but a true history, at least on its cross-dressing surface, though this film takes up a favourite theme of modern male Australian directors – the relationship between a bad man and his mother. Is it time to do one from her point of view?

Looks great and the frocks are terrific. Justin Kurzel loves the smell of evil, starting with Snowtown, moving onto a fresh if rainlashed version of Macbeth, a film version of the Assassin’s Creed game in which was rampant but not convincing, and now Ned Kelly’s idea of himself. This one is written by Shaun Grant who did Snowtown, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw is replaced by Ari Wegner, and brother Jed Kurzel is on music duty once again. Liz Watts from Porchlight is producing with Daybreak Films and Momentum Pictures on as well. 

Stan, always a lively opportunist, has popped this picture out into the cinemas for a short run, before moving it to the smaller screen on Australia Day. 

Foxtel 

The End, a ten-part series incited by euthanasia, created for Foxtel and Sky UK, and produced by See-Saw Films is wending its way towards Foxtel Showcase. It has a rolled-gold cast in Frances O’Connor, Robyn Nevin, John Walters, Noni Hazlehurst, Alex Dimitriades, Roy Billing and Harriet Walter. The show is created and written by Samantha Strauss, and directed by Jessica M Thompson and Jonathan Brough.

Streamer executives have put on their special anti-lawyer garlic necklaces and taken up the case of Nicola Gobbo in a series called Lawyer X, even before the court action has finished. How far they have come in the last ten months on this eight-part journey into the decay of a legal system is not easy to discover. 

Seven

Shine Endemol dips into the old Crawfords box to convert The Flying Doctors into RFDS. This iteration of the aerial medics seems to be a lot more melodramatic as the horrible emotional scrapes of the 21st century tumble out of the doors of small planes in baking heat. Cast is Justine Clarke, Rob Collins and Stephen Peacocke, the writers are Ian Meadows with Adrian Wills, Claire Phillips, Magda Wozniak and Jon Bell while Imogen Banks is producing. It is said to be based on true stories which I guess means there will be no vampires, ghosts or zombies. Curses!

Bevan Lee wrote five episodes of The Flying Doctors back in 1991. Now he is responsible for the ten-episode series Between Two Worlds which has an illustrious list of directors in Kriv Stenders, Lynn Hegarty, Caroline Bell-Booth, Beck Cole and Michael Hurst. Key cast is led out by UK actor Hermione Norris, with Philip Quast, Sara Wiseman and Aaron Jeffrey.

This one has the delicious adjectives of classic melodrama as ‘Norris plays Cate Walford, whose relationship with vicious, business tycoon husband, Phillip, is on the ropes and sees a tempestuous home life trapped in a tangled web of lies and manipulation’. From the penthouse she tumbles down to ‘the warm and loving world of a widow and her footy star son and musical daughter. Destructive secrets are soon unearthed proving nothing is quite as it first might appear.’ This one is glistening with yum-yums for a chatty audience. 

Nine

Six weeks after Foxtel, Nine announced its own version of the Nicola Gobbo story, called Informant 3838. This version is being made by Screentime, which has the advantage of navigating the legals on the Underbelly franchise. Indeed, Gobbo was a character in that version of the saga as well. She is played by Ella Scott Lynch with Gyton Grantley and Robert Mammone reprising their original roles. 

That seems to have exhausted Nine because the only other new drama announced returns to the world of Rebecca Gibney and Halifax. Maybe key executives are being blackmailed by deranged media academics and forced to carry out experiments on the changing face of audiences.

Halifax: Retribution is made by Beyond Lonehand, produced by Roger Simpson and Louisa Kors while Jacqueline McKenzie, Anthony LaPaglia and Jessica Marais share acting duties. According to Gibney, ‘Having grown as a woman and hopefully as an actor over the last 20 years I’m really looking forward to exploring Jane’s world from a new perspective.’

The writers probably have a century of experience between them – Mac Gudgeon, Peter Gawler and Jan Sardi are working together.   

Ten 

Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin have turned Michal Robotham’s novel The Secrets She Keeps into a six-part television series for Lingo Pictures, which most recently completed Lambs of God which dominated awards late last year. The key women in this psychological thriller are Laura Carmichael and Jessica De Gouw, directed by Jennifer Leacey and Catherine Millar. Producers are Helen Bowden and Paul Watters, who call this a ‘domestic noir’. 

The Lesson?

What do we mean by visceral daring? Breaking Bad broke the mould from the beginning and evolved into something truly distinctive, and addictive. Game of Thrones was much more than the sum of its huge budgets and a taste for violence – the atmosphere, morality, characters, expectations and mix of political melodrama and fantasy elements was a high octane breakout for television.

But they can come from anywhere. The Killing probably started Scandi-noir as a television genre which aggregated specific tropes into something more deeply different. The 51 episodes of Emperor of the Sea may have started the South Korean passion for highly stylised and dressed historical dramas in 2003. Telenovelas were running as early as 1951 with Your Life Belongs to Me in Brazil. There are many more in cinema. 

They are shows that found new recipes and really ran with them, and they became globally addictive. They are not necessarily expensive.

To answer the question properly we have to include those shows which have already touched the hearts of ordinary Australians, and it quickly becomes a much larger issue. RFDS, Informant 3838 and Halifax: Retribution are all reboots.

But we can certainly say that the Berlin selectors were impressed by the chutzpah of Stateless and Mystery Road. I think Hungry Ghosts and New Gold Mountain from SBS will be fresh for Australian audiences and I hope they work as consistent visions. 

To redefine the medium, shows need to be very, very thorough. Which emerges from practice, which is a function of returning series or at least closely related genre work. The reward is a global breakout.

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.