As the ratings season winds to an end for this year there is a welcome new slew of shows to leaven the lump of reality dross epitomised by the egregiously awful Bachelor and the unwatchablly tedious Mole. The fact that they are deservedly unpopular does little to explain the continuing success of Big Brother. I watched an episode of all of them last week (being a TV reviewer can be hazardous to your health in ways that go beyond the sedentary nature of the occupation) and wondered why on earth any of them had any viewers at all. All I can say is that they encourage every known turpitude from pride and vanity (substituting narcissism for self-esteem) to jealousy, envy, sexual exploitation, dishonesty and just plain meanness. The moral hazard is obvious, for the qualities required to succeed in such an environment involve physical attractiveness mixed with ruthlessness and a manipulative disingenuousness worthy of Machiavelli’s Prince.
Take the Bachelor (take it far away, in fact). I am by no means a lone voice decrying its many infelicities, but chief among my worries is a kind of mystification about the young women. How on earth did the producers find 25 extremely beautiful, professionally qualified young women who seem utterly devoid of all self-respect and indeed of all character discernment? Someone with true self-respect would never line up to be tested and selected as a partner. Going into such a contest argues serious psychological issues for all involved unless (and I hope this is true) it is all a scripted drama. A lame and unsatisfactory drama to be sure, but certainly less disquieting than the awful prospect of how far down women’s status and respect has dwindled since the first joyous and heady days of feminism. We are left with the unedifying sight of 25 sex objects competing ruthlessly for the shallow and unreliable affections of a sex object of the opposite gender. The weasel words used about relationships and emotions only serve to underscore for me how utterly the real stuff of human love relationships has here been undermined. By contrast, the Chinese matchmaking program If You Are The One is a gem of respectful realism. Catch it on SBS and see if you agree.
Having got past The Bachelor, that piece of dreadfulness, it is time for some good news. It turns out that in the desert that represents Australian access to the full range of overseas programs, there is a welcome oasis in the form of the BBC’s subscription service. It turns out that for those lucky enough to have IPads, Iphones or Ipod Touches, one can pay a very reasonable ($89.99 yearly or $9.49 monthly) fee for the legal right to view a large range of current and archival BBC programs. There are many treasures in the archival area: I was particularly pleased to revisit That Was The Week That Was, the early 60s satire program that set the benchmark for fearless political commentary and comedic genius. It was the late David Frost’s first really big TV venture and set him on the course for his extraordinary career. It’s something to be glad about: Australians are no longer deprived of some of the vast array of information and entertainment that is available to others.
As for new programs, The Black List looks very promising. James Spader, even in solid balding middle-age, is still able to command the screen as surely as he did as a young heart-throb of 30, even 20 years ago. Some actors do have a certain magnetism in front of the camera: some call it the Monroe effect, recalling how whenever Marilyn Monroe was onscreen or in a photograph, she became the main focus of attention even when many others were also there. It can’t be explained away by looks: if that were so then Spader would have lost his magnetism as his looks faded. Anyway, as Raymond Reddington, a mysterious sociopath who seems to hold national security in his hand, he delivers. Megan Boone plays Elizabeth Keen, the rookie FBI agent who becomes his unwilling young sidekick. We shall see how the plot develops as the series unfolds. The Seven network is sensibly screening it very soon (only a week) after it screens in the US, so there is little or no incentive for Australians to download illegally.
I hope, however to welcome back the likes of Sean Micallef and Roy & HG to their rightful primetime places in the next year, even though Australian drama at the moment is reasonably well-served on the ABC with Upper Middle Class Bogan, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and It’s a Date. The recent slew of Packer biography dramas on Nine, lavishly underwritten by Screen Australia (for that read you, as taxpayer) rated well with Howzat! (which at least had cricket rather than a hagiography of the network’s founder) but Power Games: the Packer-Murdoch Story tanked, with few people willing to watch a hagiography that wasn’t mainly about sport.
There’s a bigger picture behind all this here, and it bears sketching out for future reference. To start with, there is little incentive to create ground-breaking comedy or drama unless the taxpayer subsidises it anyway: those who complain that the ABC is taxpayer-funded are perhaps unaware of the large concessions and grants received by the commercial networks. There is an excellent article on crikey.com concerning this and I recommend the whole site to anyone who wants to familiarise themselves with a genuinely independent alternative viewpoint on Australian and global issues. You would have to pay for access to the site, but the cost is somewhat less than a year’s newspapers and at least they are not owned by tycoons with agendas that may not be the same as yours.
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.