The ABC’s latest drama series Cleverman was heavily-hyped in the lead-up to its launch last week (new episodes air Thursday nights at 8.30 on ABC1, or you can catch up on iView), and going by the first two episodes the hype was pretty much justified. But it’s been interesting to read the difference between local reviews (where everyone loves it!) and ones out of the US (where it’s seen as ok, but not something that stands out from a pack dominated by various low-key UK supernatural and SF series).
On one level, they’re both right: for an Australian show, Cleverman breaks a lot of new ground and has much to offer, while from a global perspective it has faults – go-slow plotting, not-quite- sparkling dialogue – that prevent it from standing out in a fairly crowded market. But that was pretty much always going to be the case. While Australia has a lot of strengths when it comes to film and television production (mostly to do with our actors and our technical crews), our scriptwriting has rarely been world-class. It’s no surprise that the biggest global hit out of Australia in recent years, Mad Max: Fury Road, is a film where the visuals are the most important element (see also: the work of Baz Lurhmann).
So why even try? Is a generic fantasy series based on Aboriginal mythology something Australian television needs more than a unique drama series based on Aboriginal reality? The real story is that for quite some time now what Australia needs hasn’t been something the ABC’s had the luxury to consider. After years and years of budget cuts combined with the rising cost of producing any kind of scripted television – just having actors spending an hour talking on a handful of sets doesn’t cut it these days – the ABC simply can’t afford to make any kind of television they can’t reasonably expect to sell overseas. In fact, most of the time they can’t afford to make television at all, having to chip in with co-productions where the costs (and profits) are shared. That’s why we’ve had three series, and counting, of the astonishingly low-rating dramedy Please Like Me – the first series was picked up by a US cable network who pretty much financed the next two series. It’s a win-win. The US kept getting a show they wanted, while the ABC got local content for next to nothing. Only problem was, it was local content no-one locally wanted to watch.
Cleverman is a lot more entertaining than that, but it was made with at least one eye on overseas sales (it’s currently screening on SundanceTV in the US). That’s why it seems unusual for Australian television. In the past we’d get this kind of series from overseas while our local programs are more about “real life” (crime dramas). It’s not hard to see a future where the only kind of local content we get here is the kind that can be sold overseas as something exciting and exotic. On the other hand, Game of Thrones is pretty huge and it’s not like it reflects the reality of life in the large swathes of Europe where it’s shot. Maybe fantasy is the future: we should consider ourselves lucky we’ve started to wake up to that before our TV industry vanishes completely.
Written by Anthony Morris