Exactly how in 2019 do we measure the success of a TV show? Audience numbers, which in any case aren’t revealed by streaming companies where the majority of new shows debut these days? Overnight ratings, even though these don’t reveal the long tail of catch-up? Word of mouth? Chances are no two, let alone 10, 20 or 100, people are even watching the same show. Awards? According to research by FX Networks, 495 scripted original series were made available in 2018, which is a lot more TV than an award show, or any functioning human for that matter, can take in.
With all that in mind, we’ve cast aside the dubious “global hit” claims and asked our jury of seasoned TV viewers and industry watchers to assess the hits, misses and trends of the year that was.
Best international drama
It was an exceptional year for scripted television, and one where the diversity of voices and the repurposing of familiar genres put an end to outdated concepts such as prestige TV or mainstream programming. The two shows that stood out above all else were both in their second season, both took deeply transformative steps, and both had a feel for the audacious.
Watching HBO’s Succession (Showcase, Foxtel on Demand) and Amazon Prime Video’s Fleabag was above all, despite the sometimes uncomfortable terrain they expertly traversed, a pleasure. This season’s six episodes of cover star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, a blackly comic drama about a woman trying to understand her life’s sharp edges, run for a total of 152 minutes: I can’t think of another series that contains such multitudes in a condensed window. Beginning with a family dinner with an electrifying charge that never dissipated, the London-set show was furiously funny in uncovering what our most personal bonds truly entail.
The best programs this year had distinct voices, and there was no better example of that than Fleabag. Every time you considered that Waller-Bridge was just dallying with your expectations – see the back and forth relationship with Andrew Scott’s “Hot Priest” – she would turn the tables in a confounding and revelatory way. The ending was so masterfully judged, with the audience Waller-Bridge had confided in left behind, that I’m happy if this truly is the end of Fleabag.
“Money wins,” snarls ageing media tycoon Logan Roy (Brian Cox) after seemingly securing a major deal midway through this season of Succession, and at first glance that could be the show’s slogan. The acidic black comedy arising from Jesse Armstrong’s depiction of a Murdoch-like clan makes for horrifying humour, but even as the one per cent ride roughshod over the world, their personal failings are intimately devastating.
Logan’s adult children, including a terrific Sarah Snook’s ambitious Shiv, contort themselves to meet the demands of a father who ultimately views them as rivals to be used and swept aside. The show is a tragedy with amazing insults, verbally and visually so quick on its feet that you have to process each episode. Public power and private desperation feels like an apt summation of 2019’s woes, with Succession as the year’s stand-bearer.
Best of the rest: Dark (Netflix), Unbelievable (Netflix), Chernobyl (HBO), Mindhunter (Netflix), Pen15 (Stan), When They See Us (Netflix), Watchmen (HBO).
Best Australian drama
From its electrifying opening sequence, through a knowing depiction of Indigenous affairs, to the portrayal of the brutal rough-and-tumble of federal politics, there’s much to admire about Total Control (ABC). But the shining attraction of the six-part drama is the magnificent Deborah Mailman, who’s given a starring role that enables her to display the spectrum of her talent with all its dazzling nuance. She plays Alex Irving, a single mother from outback Queensland whose instinctive bravery during a violent street attack lands her in the national spotlight and, soon after, a seat in the Senate.
She arrives in Canberra at the urging of Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths), whose Coalition party clings to government by a wafer-thin majority. A newbie in the national capital’s unforgiving corridors of power, Alex must balance her expectations of herself, and those of her community, with her inexperience and relative isolation in her new workplace.
Can she initiate meaningful change, or will she be reduced to a token ornament and a sorely needed vote when it comes to passing proposed legislation?
Alex is propelled on to a tricky path that involves learning to play the political game while remaining true to herself and her values. And from the time she kicks off her shoes during a TV interview, so she’ll feel more comfortable speaking honestly rather than regurgitating government-approved weasel words, it’s clear that watching her navigate that course will be an absorbing experience.
Total Control is rich with sharply-observed detail and cleverly crafted dialogue. But seeing the charismatic, earthy Mailman move through a range of emotions – sad, sexy, frustrated, furious, funny, loving, vulnerable, confused, wounded, grief-stricken, strategic, formidable, resolute – is its crowning glory.
Timely, topical and utterly credible given the recent machinations of Australian politics, Total Control offers an array of accomplishment. Created by Darren Dale, Miranda Dear, Stuart Page and Griffiths, it’s written with a crackling intelligence by them, with contributions from several others, and directed with imagination and flair by Rachel Perkins. The well-chosen supporting cast features Trisha Morton-Thomas, Rob Collins, Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Aaron Pedersen, Harry Richardson, Celia Ireland, Anthony Hayes and William McInnes.
In a year that wasn’t notable for an abundance of impressive local drama, Total Control was a standout.
Honourable mentions: The Cry (ABC), The Hunting (SBS), Five Bedrooms (Ten), Lambs of God (Foxtel).
Though some may have bemoaned the state of comedy in 2019 with invocations of the dark spectre of “political correctness”, reality TV was teeming with great comedies, creators bursting with variety and freedom afforded by the broader landscape of the medium.
Waller-Bridge’s much-talked-about tour de force Fleabag – is it a comedy or a drama, you decide? – blew everyone away with its bitterly hysterical tale of a cynical single. Waller-Bridge, also the creator of Killing Eve and now a James Bond screenwriter, seemingly can’t stop kicking goals.
Another to garner acclaim was Russian Doll, the surreal saga of a young woman stuck in a loop of repeatedly dying and coming back to life on the same day.
Natasha Lyonne, the best thing in just about everything she’s done for 20 years, tore it up in this new-age Groundhog Day with a hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking performance. Russian Doll and Fleabag were two of the most prominent examples in 2019 of funny women taking centre stage in brilliantly-crafted comedies.
Another was Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, which came to a much-lauded conclusion this year, its seventh season bringing standing ovations in living rooms around the world (maybe). It’s quite an achievement for an actor who starred in Seinfeld to create a character so iconic that many will remember her for Selina Meyer, rather than Elaine Benes, but she pulled it off.
Another long-running favourite to take its final bow was Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s tech-bro sitcom running the victory lap in typically insightful and brilliant form.
For laughs mixed with a dose of tears, Ricky Gervais returned to the sitcom with After Life, an affecting portrayal of grief that went deeper than the polarising auteur ever had before – there were plenty of great gags, but the moments of sadness were so heart-wrenching at times it seemed perverse to even call it a comedy.
But possibly the most unexpected and delightful discovery of 2019 was Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. This sketch show of just six episodes – each one less than 20 minutes, allowing the whole series to binged in around the runtime of an average movie – was a showcase for ex-SNL writer Robinson’s spectacularly demented imagination.
Mundane everyday situations turned bafflingly absurd, bizarre characters divebombed into the ordinary world to general bewilderment, and things in general got weird with an originality and bracing lack of restraint rarely seen in any sketch show since Monty Python. It left us slavering for more.
Game of Thrones slays ’em
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Which just proves he never saw Game of Thrones, the fantasy juggernaut that ended this year with its eighth season, and doled out plenty of unhappiness for both good and bad.
No TV event of 2019 generated as much anticipation or discussion as the GoT finale, as the fates of Jon Snow, Danaerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, the Night King and all the other merry denizens of Westeros were picked over in minute detail.
Some found the conclusion rushed, the six-episode season too short to provide a fitting denouement to the show’s many dozens of characters. Some were angry at Danaerys’s “heel turn” or mocking of production goofs, while others remained transfixed by the spectacle of the final epic battle scenes.
What could not be in doubt, however, was the legacy the show left for the medium. The astounding scope of Game of Thrones, the opening up of possibilities for storytelling on a hitherto undreamt-of scale for the small screen: these will remain long after the sight of a coffee cup accidentally left on-camera has been forgotten.
What we learnt from a clutch of reality shows
Reality TV has always revealed truths about the people participating. No matter how outlandish the setup, the real character of the contestants is always exposed eventually. Even better, when you take the wide view it’s a form that also speaks volumes about the people watching it.
So with reality shows, the highest-rating genre in Australia this year, what do the big hits of 2019 tell us about ourselves?
Well, despite the world going to hell in a hand basket around us, we haven’t lost our sense of humour. The Masked Singer (10)— in which people whose fame was in inverse proportion to the size of their costumes karaoked in front of a bewildered Lindsay Lohan— was one of the breakout hits of the year. Why? Because it was utterly, mind-bogglingly absurd.
Survivor Australia (10) once again demonstrated that there is such a thing as a national character, with anyone employing the brash, brutal tactics of the US version voted out at the first opportunity and the ultimate prize going to a diminutive middle-aged woman they called The Smiling Assassin. Because seriously guys, if you’re going to cheat and backstab, can’t we please be civil about it?
Lego Masters (Nine) proved that the worse the real world gets, the more we need to play, especially in the company of good-hearted people who prioritise fun – and kindness – over winning.
But what, then, are we to make of the Defcon 1 success of Married At First Sight (Nine)? A showcase of the extremes in human nature, we could not get enough of it. Well, if nothing else, it demonstrated the varied and often sophisticated ways we consume reality TV.
Sure, some people watched it because they enjoy watching horrible things. For others, it was a reassuring reminder that no matter how bad their own lives were or how dysfunctional their relationships, here was a cohort that was way, way worse.
And a surprising number of people watched it with their families so they could talk in an instructive way about how to spot a dysfunctional marriage before you found yourself in one.
See? Reality television. Making the world better, one Botox shot at a time.
The best things in life can be free
With Disney and Apple having joined Australia’s increasingly crowded streaming landscape, viewers have some questions to ponder in 2019. One is how many different subscription streaming services we want to pay for each month. Then there’s the question of which ones, as individual platforms hoard their own content, stitch up exclusive deals with major content producers and plough money into original productions to keep subscribers locked in.
Overlooked, however, is a clutch of niche streaming services – many of them free – that can add some serious depth to your on-demand library in certain areas.
If you’re a member of a participating local or university library you already have access to Kanopy, the free in-home streaming service specialising in arthouse and independent movies, documentaries and historical and educational films. Click on “Australian studies” and you’ll get films ranging from Don’s Party and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie to recent cinema releases, obscure Ozploitation flicks, historical curiosities and countless documentaries.
Tubi TV is another free streaming service that has a surprisingly large library of film and television— and surprising depth in stand-up comedy, old grindhouse flicks and ’80s cult classics (including Peter Jackson’s hilarious early work).
Free chuckles can also be had at comedycentral.com.au, which hosts loads of Comedy Central content, new and old, along with modest but memorable local productions like These New South Whales and Nippers of Dead Bird Bay. Anime lovers can get stuck into a huge library of Japanese animation for free at animelab.com.
Nobudge.com hosts a sizeable free collection of short films from Australia and around the world, and documentary freaks are covered by DocPlay and iWonder (paid services with free trial periods), while the gigantic archive.org hosts a seemingly bottomless collection of old movies, radio plays and livemusic recordings (Grateful Dead fans who enter might never be seen again).
There are plenty of services you can spend money on these days, but if you know where to look there’s just as much that you don’t have to pay for at all.
The next phase of disruption
The networks invented the Big Television Event. People scheduled their lives to fit around each new episode of a series or miniseries, inviting friends around to join in and refusing dinner invitations on nights a favoured program screened: 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic case of television rearranging our lives.
However, digital recorders soon killed off the joyous sense of anticipation and the social pleasures of watching at a time a network decreed. So, the biggest television surprise of 2019 was how on-demand services took control, allowing people to watch what they wanted when they liked.
No longer do you have to watch Tinker Tailor over six weeks (the weekly wait was torture), you can now devour it all in one delirious gulp. And why not watch all three The Godfather films in a row or, if Part III palls, switch to any or every Al Pacino or Robert De Niro film you can find.
On-demand services can also make programs of any length. The adaptation of a novel can run eight or 10 hours, a single sitcom episode 22 minutes or 75. If The Kosminsky Method‘s Chuck Lorre feels like doing an epic riff on prostates and beta-sitosterol, why restrict him to a single one-liner?
This is only “in theory”, for even on-demand services dream of network sales for their self-produced programs, and networks are far less flexible. But don’t bet against on-demand getting its way. Despite all the hullabaloo over banning on-demand films from film festivals such as Cannes, and how the media deemed as stupid their briefly releasing films like Roma and The Irishman in cinemas first, on-demand services proved they were smarter.
All the on-demand services need do to maintain their 2019 momentum is fix their low-IQ algorithms (if you watch one teen movie, there is an expectation that you want to watch every one ever made), redesign the obtuse search engines (that can’t find what you want even when you type in the correct title) and help viewers locate the thousands of foreign programs secreted who knows where (though some internet forums help).
But let’s not quibble. In 2019, on-demand liberated how we make and watch films, series and documentaries in myriad ways, including many that are not yet fully understood, appreciated or exploited. They freed up storytelling.
Gather around the water cooler
“I like it and I hate it at the same time.” So opened Tom Gleeson’s Gold Logie acceptance speech, and although even he probably didn’t realise it, it was a beautiful summation of what was to come.
Completely off the cuff, the pithy eight-minute monologue was a moment of truth-telling no one saw coming – and which got the nation talking.
The win arrived as the result of Gleeson’s relentless— and cynical — campaign for it. And at least half his speech was the kind of excoriating rant that epitomised the brand of sarcasm on which he’s built a career – and which appalled a lot of people who thought it completely inappropriate for television’s “night of nights”.
Among other things, he told the room – and the country – that “our industry is dying and I’m a part of that”. No one’s watching free to air TV anymore. Everyone’s watching Netflix. A point on which he was both right, and wrong. No one can deny the disastrous inroads streaming and other web disruptors have made on the reach and profitability of free-to-air television.
Yet commercial television remains the most widely consumed form of culture in Australia, by a country mile. Gleeson’s speech was also full of love for the ABC, for his job and the people he works with and the medium. As you’d hope from a comedian, it was very funny. And he closed with another line that perfectly sums up the vexed state of local television right now: “It makes no sense at all. And that’s why I love it.”
Dog of the year
And the gong, regrettably, goes to a shabby trio of female-focused local drama series offered by the free-to-air commercial networks: Bad Mothers (Nine), Secret Bridesmaids’ Business (Seven) and Playing For Keeps (Ten).
Call them the unedifying offspring of Big Little Lies. That phenomenally successful HBO series, an international hit, demonstrated that contemporary stories about women, friendship, family life, dark secrets and murder could win audiences and awards.
So, as this is television, attempts to replicate that triumph quickly followed. But with these productions, applying that formula has resulted in creaky clones, each of them disappointing in its own way, but all afflicted by rickety writing, unconvincing performances and characters and plots that fail to engage.
Bad Mothers veered embarrassingly close to BLL duplication with its quartet of mothers of primary school children and plotlines involving infidelity, financial pressures, deceptions and, yes, murder.
Secret Bridesmaids’ Business contorted a play about female friends sharing a hotel room on the night before one of them marries, into a handsome looking but flimsy revenge drama about a (male) psycho stalker terrorising the wedding party.
Into its second season, Playing For Keeps again tried, and failed, to evoke the glamour and the pressure in the lives of women involved with sports stars.
In the process, it sacrificed an opportunity to explore a complex and intriguing world, settling instead for a grab at surface gloss, which it also failed to create.
You have to feel some sympathy for the cast members who must grapple with characters of paper-thin emotional and psychological depth and are then required to hit the promotional trail making approving statements about how their productions gamely fly the flag for female empowerment. Bah, humbug.
Good year for
Hamish Macdonald: moves from The Project to ABC and Q&A duties.
Deborah Mailman: Total Control.
Tom Gleeson: the Logies poacher turns gamekeeper.
Survivor: Pia Miranda, aka the smiling assassin, follows in the steps of Shane Gould and wins.
Singing unicorn: who’d have thought?
Lego aficionados: the ultimate block party.
The Front Bar: the Keep It Simple principle in action.
Karl Stefanovic: loses hosting gig on Today, then gets the job back.
Fox Showcase: back on track locally with Lambs of God.
Bad year for
George Calombaris: apologises for restaurant wages scandal on ABC; along with Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan leaves MasterChef.
Tracey Spicer: what should have been Australia’s “Me Too moment” descended into recriminations.
Georgie Gardner: didn’t deserve to be cast aside from Today.
Horse racing: the ABC exposed the dark side of the industry.
Foxtel: the paycaster faces an existential crisis amid $10/month streamers.
The Footy Show: not even a much-needed revamp could save it.
Amazing Race: changed the format, degraded the show.
Survivor: the US edition is engulfed in, then botches, a harassment scandal.
Sunrise: the media watchdog slams a segment on the adoption of Indigenous children.
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