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Under the Vines on ABC review: to New Zealand with love

A British lead and Australian lead walk into a beautiful New Zealand setting and supporting cast – but what happens next?

Saturday night is a big viewing night for the ABC, with only the various news services beating their evening line-up in the ratings top-ten. What it’s not a big night for is Australian content: it’s cosy UK murder mysteries and dramas that are the ABC’s bread and butter on a Saturday night. At first glance, Under the Vines looks like more of the same rustic rural ramblings from overseas – until you spot Australia’s own Rebecca Gibney in a starring role. What gives?

Fresh from skipping out on plastic surgery (again) Daisy Munroe (Gibney) is happily living the life of a Sydney socialite. Well, maybe not happily: her credit card’s been declined at a charity event and the man she’s flirting with has her pegged as an ‘older woman’. To make matters worse, it now seems her cashed-up stepfather Stanley is dead.

Halfway across the globe in London, lawyer Louis Oakley (Charles Edwards) is waking up in a holding cell. A previous burst of public nudity has him dubbed ‘The Piccadilly Willy’, which is just the latest in a series of personal and professional disasters that has his marriage teetering and his business partner gunning for him. To make matters worse, it now seems his cashed-up uncle Stanley is dead.

Both head to New Zealand with no idea of the other’s existence. Which is a problem, as it seems the only thing Stanley had in this world is a struggling vineyard and he’s left it to the pair of them (it turns out when they each heard ‘sole heir’, he actually meant ‘soul heir’). Will they sell the place off to the first buyer they get and hightail it back to their respective lives, or will they somehow find a connection to both the locals and the land and decide to stay? The answer will in no way surprise you.

International production

So we have one British lead, one Australian lead, and a New Zealand setting and supporting cast. Welcome to the new world of international television production. Created by Australian Erin White (who worked on series such as At Home with Julia, Squinters, Sando, and Doctor Doctor) and produced by a string of global and local production companies – you’ll also see the NSW government and New Zealand Film Commission logos in the end credits – it’s a patchwork quilt with something for everyone.

Which is a fancy way of saying this is a story of city folk out of their element in a quirky country town (well, region), just like television has been reliably serving up since the dawn of time – it was definitely old news when Northern Exposure was new, and that was 30 years ago. The idea is to drop some relatable characters into a setting that looks really good, which these days is something of a New Zealand speciality, and the scenery here is worth the price of admission on its own.

New Zealand has also established itself as something of a world leader when it comes to quirky yet unthreatening characters (blame Taika Waititi and The Flight of the Conchords). The supporting cast are strong from the start, and in time they may develop into show-stealers: winery staff Gus (Simon Mead) and Tippy (Trae Te Wiki) are the nice ones, while rival winery owners Don (John Bach) and Marisa (Sarah Peirse) are not.

Reliable

With a set-up this – in this case ‘reliable’ is probably a better word than ‘generic’ – it’s no surprise the whole thing ticks along like a well-oiled machine. What makes it more than the sum of its parts are the lead duo, who are exactly the kind of entertaining double act that keeps viewers coming back.

Edwards is stuck with the somewhat thankless role of the slightly stuffy and blustery character who just wants to fix things up enough to turn a decent profit and then head back to London, but he has more than enough charm to keep Louis sympathetic.

It’s Gibney as the lightweight socialite who finds a connection to something deeper at the vineyard who’s the stand-out, bringing a bubbly energy to the series without sliding into caricature. Her performance helps make Under the Vines more than merely polished, and her chemistry with Edwards creates a duo it’s easy to care about.

International co-productions are one fixture of our changing media landscape: the ABC being at the back of the queue to air these productions is another. More and more often they slowly filter down through a network of pay TV, streaming services and other outlets who get first dibs long before the free-to-air networks.

So while last Saturday was the premiere of Under the Vines on the ABC, already streaming service (and major investor) Acorn is set to begin airing season two; it’s a good thing this kind of cozy fish-out-of-water drama is timeless.

Under the Vines is available on iView, and airs on the ABC on Saturdays at 8.20pm.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.