Stan Originals’ latest drama, The Commons, belongs to the classic science fiction tradition of The War of The Worlds, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s more interested in warning us of where we’re heading than fantasizing about ray guns and hover bikes. It’s grounded and gritty and all-too-plausible; kids are still going to school, they just have to worry about acid rain and having classes cancelled because the air quality is too poor. Oh wait: that already happened this summer.
Waking up to a small child asking, ‘having another one of your dreams? The ones where you can’t have a baby?’ would be grim enough for most futures, but The Commons is only just getting started. It’s the day after tomorrow in Sydney and things have only gotten worse: wind storms, endless drought and climate change in general has created waves of dislocated people. The spread of diseases is increasingly out of control, and the political response is harsh and dehumanising. In the midst of all this, thirty-eight year old neuropsychologist Eadie (Joanne Froggat) just wants one thing: to have a child.
As you may have already figured out from her nightmares (the opening sequences of episode one is an unsettling mix of images culminating in Eadie giving birth in a lush grove while dead flying foxes fall from the sky), it’s not happening naturally for her. This is a particularly serious problem, because while Eadie is keen to try anything, her husband, Lloyd (David Lyons) has a deep distrust of any fringe medical practices – a result of his work at a medical lab on the forefront of fighting the latest wave of deadly diseases.
There are multiple levels to this story. Lloyd and his co-worker and best friend, Shay (Ryan Corr) get caught up in corporate intrigue over a possible disease that may still be too risky to test yet; Eadie’s efforts to fall pregnant result in her doing ‘national service’ on the frontlines of keeping climate refugees out of the still habitable east coast. Eventually, the focus widens to encompass refugee perspectives, too; Sydney has a quota system for new residents ‘until the infrastructure can be built to cope,’ and refugees can be arrested just for trying to survive.
The risk with this kind of near-future story is that real life events will overtake the future being predicted; showing Sydney under a dirty haze is a whole lot less futuristic after this year’s bushfires. That should be a sign of success – the predictions are spot on – but in a drama it just means the story highlights something that is suddenly already part of daily life. Being too accurate makes this kind of show less special, turning a thought-provoking future into just another reminder of how crappy things already are.
That’s a minor quibble. Artfully directed (this bleak tomorrow looks just nice enough on the surface to be plausibly liveable) and with a range of strong central performances, The Commons swiftly establishes the new status quo before the twists and conspiracies emerge. Unlike a lot of recent Australian fantasy and science-fiction, the series throws enough ideas out there to keep the setting and storylines constantly evolving, a grim future constantly showing off new facets to the viewer.
The flip side of this is that the central storyline sometimes gets a little lost in the muddle. Having a lot to take in makes for good science fiction, but as a thriller Eadie’s story could have taken centre stage a little more often (especially as Froggat’s performance is a highlight). She’s our initial guide to this future, but as an ensemble drama it’s the future itself that becomes the main attraction. It holds a car crash fascination; it’s hard to look away, even as we’re speeding towards it.
Creator/Writer/Executive Producer: Shelley Birse
Executive Producers: Graham Yost, Fred Golan, Michael Dinner
Directors: Jeffrey Walker, Rowan Woods, Jennifer Leacey
Writers: Matt Ford, Michael Miller, Matt Cameron
Australia, 2019, 8 episodes
Premieres December 25th on Stan