The first episode of Year Of starts in risky territory for an Australian drama: a teenage party. Risky because party scenes on Australian television are notoriously iffy (the only thing worse are nightclub scenes), and anything featuring young people being their purest selves – pleasure-seeking, slang-spouting – risks coming off as cringe.
Fortunately, the creators of Year Of aren’t new to this (for one, it’s a spin-off of Stan’s popular high school series Bump), and the party – a Year 12 event gate-crashed by our Year 11 characters – is authentically shabby yet energetic, the kind of good time had by kids not entirely sure what they’re supposed to be doing half the time.
Despite returning to the setting of Glebe’s Jubilee High, the only cast member here from Bump is Bowie (Christian Byers), Oly’s mellow older brother who’s now a teacher. The first episode does a solid job of quickly establishing the large cast, with a range of students, teachers and parents passing through the spotlight. Mo (Samuel El Rahi) and Tully (Samson Alston) are sporty boys, Priya (Tharanya Tharan), Maya (Isabella Graiche) and Kate (Sophia Wright-Mendelsohn) the main girls.
George (Samuel Dawson) is the glue holding the group together, while boyfriend Brendan (Nicholas Cradock) is the one hosting the party. Tully’s parents Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Alan (Matt Nable) get a quick introduction; deputy principal Eddie (Ray Chong Nee) gets to hear Bowie talking about being ‘back on the apps’.
It’s a lot for an episode that comes in under half an hour, but for the most part that feels intentional rather than sloppy. For these kids, everything’s coming at them at once, with family pressures and possible careers piled on top of social commitments and friendships that feel authentically random, half lifelong bonds, half left over from a rapidly fading childhood.
If Year Of was just ten lightweight episodes of a diverse group of Australian teens living their best lives, it’d be ground-breaking drama. Regretfully I must inform you that the teens’ wild night out ends in tragedy for one of them – no spoilers, but once again it seems that having the most to live for is a prime risk factor – and the series takes a hard swerve into well charted territory as everyone struggles to come to terms with grief and loss.
Once upon a time, prestige dramas like Love My Way (producer: John Edwards) spent hours building up characters before devastating them with a shock loss. Offspring (producer: John Edwards) waited entire seasons before emotionally shattering audiences with a surprise demise. It’s not even half an hour into Year Of (producer: John Edwards) before someone dies: by 2030 all Australian series will begin with the shock death of a ‘much loved character’.
Snark aside, it is well handled here. But it remains a slightly strange choice, especially as the series moves on after episode two to be more about the shifting lives of the teens (and the adults) as they increasingly deal with less earth-shattering issues – friendship frictions, possible romances, parental problems. Episode one is the heights, episode two is the depths, after that is mostly covering what lies between.
And Year Of covers a lot of ground: relationships, youth suicide, living rough, a parent who shows her liposuction scars to your friends. Some elements deserve a more concentrated focus, while others are best left in the background; the huge economic divide between the characters comes across the strongest when it’s only hinted at (Tully and Mo are next door neighbours, only one lives in a beautifully restored Edwardian home and the other … doesn’t).
The plotting feels fragmented and on fast-forward, but the series isn’t stylish or impressionistic enough to make this jittery approach fully work as a choice. It’s the performances that provide the consistency to hold it all together, the cast – especially the students – constantly striking the right notes whether in big scenes or quiet glances.
They feel authentic as people even when the series around them is skittering through plot points; you never doubt a more settled, adult world (for them, if not Year Of ) is just around the corner.
All ten episodes of Year Of are now available on Stan.