If you’re looking for local drama, Australia’s free-to-air commercial networks have long been the last place to visit. The days of prime-time series getting multiple seasons seem over; the networks have now found enough ways around their licensing requirements that a handful of trashy biopics is usually all they need to tick the drama box. So as a local short form crime drama that isn’t on the ABC, Riptide comes as something of a surprise.
Commissioned by the UK’s Channel 5 in partnership with Network Ten – yes, it’s another international production that was filmed here – from local creator Jason Herbison (Lie With Me, Always Greener), Riptide is a four-part series that uses its Victorian location to tell a story that feels very international in its approach and its appeal. And not just because UK actor Jo Joyner is the star.
Joyner plays Alison Weston, wife of Sean (Peter O’Brien). Sean is older, cashed-up, and loves the surf (as shown by his massive mansion right on the water); who Alison loves is a little bit of a mystery, as she’s sending off ‘I need to see you’ text messages while Sean is out riding his board. They’ve only been married three months, so kitchen friskiness is still on the menu – at least, it is until Alison’s teen daughter Hannah (Asher Yasbincek) comes home early and unhappy from her new posh school.
Sean’s twenty-something son Ethan (Ben Turland) deliberately hasn’t seen the happy couple since their marriage, so it’s clear he isn’t fully on board with the new situation either. Sean’s birthday dinner is a bit of a frosty affair, and that’s before Ethan – who sees Alison as little more than a gold-digger who wrecked his father’s 30 year marriage – threatens to blackmail his new step-mother over some (very mild) dodgy photos of Hannah that are doing the rounds.
Ethan’s sleazy scheme doesn’t go well, and it’s not the first time he’s tried to get her to sign a pre-nup to ‘protect’ his father’s money. His mother (Ally Fowler) – Sean’s ex – is a paid-up member of the Alison haters club too, and Sean’s efforts to solve Hannah’s problem aren’t winning Hannah over. So there’s a lot of fault lines in this family, and handsome neighbour Dan (David Berry) just looks like more trouble.
Then Sean goes missing during his morning surf. Was it an accident, or something more sinister? Considering all the family dramas, not to mention a creepy hooded figure hanging around the road outside their house, and sinister seems a pretty safe bet. While there’s no shortage of suspects – you can add the ‘boyfriend’ behind the dodgy photos of Hannah to that list – Alison herself is a bit of a mystery as well. Her rise from struggle-street to the lap of luxury has worked out well for her … maybe a little too well.
This is the kind of murder mystery that ABC viewers or those keeping up with the new international dramas on SBS On Demand will know all too well. Replace the surfside location with some bleak UK setting or chilly Nordic backdrop and the events could play out basically as is. This is not a ‘uniquely Australian story’ no matter what the accents of the cast, but with murder mysteries an increasingly universal language, any effort to get Australia on the map should be encouraged.
And this is a solid example of the genre. The mystery features plenty of suspects and just about all of them are unpleasant on one level or another, with most of the performances leaning firmly into their character’s possible villainy. While some mysteries work by surprising the audience, it’s just as valid to provide the home viewer with a collection of cads who’re all worthy of being taken down. Who doesn’t love a bitchy funeral where the grieving widow is told she’s the reason her husband is dead?
There are plenty of flashbacks to fill in the increasingly complicated backstory; expect twists, double-crosses, shock reveals, and spooky dreams where someone wakes up screaming. If you didn’t already know that pretty much the only way to be ruled out as a serious suspect is to be arrested by the police before the end of the final episode, you will when the cops handcuff the one character it’s clear didn’t have a secret sinister motive (just a regular obvious one).
In the end, mystery fans know there’s one factor that counts above all others in this kind of series: the locations. Victoria’s coast provides a lot of windswept grandeur and fancy houses, and being filmed during a chilly time of year gives things a sinister feel you wouldn’t get with the January sun. Riptide isn’t a game-changer, or even groundbreaking television – but it is the kind of solidly entertaining local drama we need a lot more of on our screens.
Riptide premieres on 28 June on Ten and Ten Play.