There is an innocuous flavour to prime time television in Australia. Whenever I sit down in front of the TV, I inevitably find myself thinking about school; all those years of teachers taking our class to an assembly hall where we would sit on hard plastic chairs, or on cold wooden floors, and listen to a speech from the Police, or the Fire Department, or Career Advisors, or Church Officials, or a host of other men and women who gave us advice on how to live our lives. Don’t steal, they would say. Don’t light fires. Don’t have sex unless you’re in love or married. Believe in Jesus. Don’t listen to your friends: take the advice of this stranger.
What is it about prime time television that brings back these memories? On a general level, I think it is due to the cautious nature of the shows as they work through the topics of drugs, alcohol (quite often two different things on TV-careers) and sex. Portrayals of these topics are influenced by the morals of the majority. Even shows that at first glance appear to not fall into this framework, such as The Secret Life of Us, which is an Australian drama that boasts an “adult” air, due mainly to its sex and nudity. The underlying themes of the show, however, is the search for Mr. and Mrs. Right, the perfect job that gives you meaning, and that if you persevere, you can find these things . . . which, when I stop to think about it, sounds awfully familiar to the speeches that I sat through at school.
With these thoughts in my head, I sat down to examine four shows from Australian television to identify just what it was that generated the school lectured feeling inside my head. The shows that I have decided upon are two locally produced shows, Rove Live and Blue Heelers, and two American produced shows, The West Wing and The Simpsons. It might appear odd that I have picked two American shows, but the purpose of The West Wing is to examine a show that is not succeeding in Australian prime time.
At the heart of The West Wing is Martin Sheen’s character of the President of the United States. It is a character built from the morals that I mentioned, and who, with these morals, is capable of a Presidential Benevolence that most would be pleased to see within their elected leader. But the main service the character provides for the show is that through him viewers can feel a positive, “What If?”; as in, “What if he were really president?” Thus, through him and the other main characters in the show, each of them dedicated to upholding the idea of democracy, it becomes a theoretical defense of this ideology. It is a show that, at it’s core, most people would be able to support. But in Australia, as I have said, The West Wing is not succeeding.
One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the respect for American politics and culture that is built into this “President”, are characteristics that few would associate with the Australian Prime Minister. An example of this difference can be shown in a small incident from an episode that aired recently. In it, the Martin Sheen President gives his aid a DVD player, because the said aid has done something nice. It is a passing act; a brief kindness the show does not dwell upon but which demonstrates the President’s awareness of those who are not as well off as he.
If, however, this had been an Australian produced show, the entire episode would have centred on this one minute conversation, and the fallout from it. For you see, if the Prime Minister were caught giving his aid a DVD player that he had purchased with taxpayer funds, the episode would have ended with the Prime Minister being chased down a hallway by a camera crew and a journalist screaming out, “Is this what our taxes are for?” The difference is one of attitude, and the serious, pro-democratic attitude is a very American characteristic, and for a show to succeed in prime time, Australia, although it may project sugar coated values that other shows do, I think that it must either be linked directly with Australian culture, or conversely, it must fall into a category that is not as reliant on cultural specifics.
It is in the Australian rural cop drama Blue Heelers, however, that a similar positive, “What If?” scenario is acted out. The small police force of Mount Thomas give the Australian audience an image of a close knit group of men and women who are there for everyone, who will listen to young and old alike, and who are, at the end of the day, the proactive policing force that you find at schools, telling children to stay out of strange cars, and to otherwise do the right thing. Blue Heelers does not have the gritty urban face of cop dramas like NYPD Blue, nor does it have a sense of moral ambiguity which can be linked with the crimes in the show. Indeed, the crimes that occur within Blue Heelers are not of an overly important nature to the narrative. One such example is an episode where a teenager is hit and killed by a truck. The boy’s death is blamed on his girlfriend, who was there at the time and apparently pushed him in front of the truck. The narrative of the show did not focus on how to prove she was there, or prove if she had something to do with his death; rather, it focused on her emotional turmoil and her unhappy home life, which, it turned out, lead to the couple going out to commit suicide on a road by leaping in front of trucks. But the crime was secondary, a tool which allowed the officer to help the girl, to make a difference in her life. The “What If?” scenario in this situation thus conveyed the positive theory of the good work of the police, a scenario which, coupled with the Australian rural setting, appeals to the prime time audience, and which has kept the show running since 1994.
Yet in Rove Live, no positive “What If?” scenario is conducted between the viewers and the show. Hosted by Rove McManus, the show is a mixture of interviews, comedy, and music. It goes for an hour, and of a quality, as summed up in a recent episode: McManus driving around the streets of Adelaide with a nine year old boy and buying McDonalds; an interview with country/rock singer Chris Isaak; three minutes of program advertising for the Harry Potter DVD, as two grown men (Rove and comedian Adam Hill) tried to pull the case from its box, and succeeded in doing so only when Hill said, “Eye of newt, wing of bee, release this frigging DVD.” Frigging, of course, being the polite way of saying fuck, which speaks directly into where Rove Live sits in the world of innocuous Australian television: the top.
Rove Live subject matter is careful, neutral, in that it does not go near religion, politics, or anything else that might divide viewers. And if such a topic does arise, McManus is quick to smooth over any wrinkles of unhappiness that might emerge, such as when comedian who appeared on the show with an anti-religious act. Everything within the show carries an air of faint buffoonery, which suggests that a pie in the face gag is not far from appearing on the show. But, the question must be raised, is this the natural response to McManus’s demographic? The show is aimed squarely at a late teen audience, and guests such as pop singer Mandy Moore and the evictees from the game show Big Brother clearly play into this. The blandness of the show is therefore the end product of having an entertainment show aimed at a market that is still in school. That Rove Live reminds me of the innocuous information given out at school should not, then, be a surprise. Neither should it surprise any other viewer to find McManus and Hill struggling with the PG rated Harry Potter and not, for example, the R rated Taxi Driver.
The Simpsons is the last show that I will look at, and the reason that I have decided on this show is due to the success it enjoys. At the current moment, the show screens every day of the week, and three of those days play more than one episode. Like Rove Live, the show begins with a youth demographic, but in its success here in Australia, it has captured a much wider audience.
At the heart of The Simpsons is the ideal of the family. While it is often promoted as a “dysfunctional” family, I’ve been long of the opinion that this is not the case, and that in fact, the family forms what can be considered an almost perfect family. There is no doubt in a viewer’s mind that each member of the Simpson family would never betray another member, and the majority of episodes are structured around the family togetherness. Any deviation from this forms the narrative of the entire episode, such as when Bart gets a Big Brother to replace Homer. At no stage within the series has the Simpson family ever been broken up, and divorce and death, when it does happen, happens across the street, or next door, but never to them. The family is a safe distance from these acts, and thus, at the same time, is the viewer. This, when coupled with family ties and slapstick, pop culture referenced humour ultimately removes the show from running the risk of insulting or turning off the majority of their viewers. Of the shows that air in Australian prime time, The Simpsons is the most innocuously flavoured.
Not all Australian television is like this, yet three of these shows are massively popular. The memory of cold wooden floors and the speeches from school appointed authority figures are always in the back of my mind whenever they appear before me. I have the same experience if I watch an episode of Friends, or the Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away. In the end, however, what does this mean? Is it a problem that lies in the heart of television? Is it a problem that rests in mainstream life? Is it even a problem? To the last question, I answer yes, because for the differences these shows do have, the air of similarity is greater. It is an air which all these shows have, and which says to me in the same way that was implied by the authority figures at school: If you can’t identify with these morals, then what’s wrong with you?