The Secret Life of Us
Regular airtime: Mondays 9:30pm (Network Ten, Australia)
Producers: John Edwards and Amanda Higgs
Cast: Claudia Karvan, Deborah Mailman, Samuel Johnson, Joel Edgerton
by Andrew Harvey
PopMatters Film and TV Critic
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Take a characteristic apartment block in a cosmopolitan city, populate it with a bunch of attractive, articulate 20-somethings (otherwise known as "real people") and you have a well worn blueprint for fictional dramas. The names, locations and languages might be different but the tension and laughs are the same. The Secret Life of Us is Network Ten's latest version of this formula, but its depiction of characters has a stronger base in reality than many of its predecessors.
The Secret Life of Us, set in a sea-side apartment block in Melbourne offers the prime time Australian viewer a polished drama with high production values and accomplished actors who come with a range of credentials including TV, film and theatre. These backgrounds suggest that the performers are more than a collection of young "stars in the making," plucked by a talent scout at the local shopping centre. This cast creates a"'new" type of reality TV, that allows us to identify with them, and perhaps realise that the leap is not all that far from couch to tube. It's not that I am advocating a total escape from the run of the mill lives that we lead in favour of one that is scripted and assisted by enthusiastic make-up artists. It's just that The Secret Life of Us presents a series of "moments," in which you can place yourself into the scene of domestic normalcy on the screen such as relationship break-ups or flatmate dilemmas. It's easy to identify with the situations presented.
But what can such identification mean? Does the act of watching these performers in the midst of awkward and torrid events save us from having to go through them ourselves? Are we observing how they cope in order to prepare ourselves for the difficulties life is waiting to hurl at us? Not necessarily. What a show like this can provide is an opportunity to come together around the office water cooler the next morning, where we can discuss what unfurled the previous night -- the cringe we all felt when Alex narrowly avoided the goodnight kiss with the nerdy doctor, or the stabs of frustration with Will for not getting the $12,000 back from his unsympathetic ex-girlfriend. We could all be there so easily. Some of us have, and we have acted in the same way.
In the spirit of that other kind of "reality TV," The Secret Life of Us attempts to push the barriers of prime-time acceptability by including scenes that would otherwise be edited out or not taped in the first place. We have, so far, observed people on the toilet, smoking dope and discussing recreational drug use. This suggests that the show's creators wish to generate a little controversy, which, as we know, is good for publicity, and so, more viewers. It is refreshing to see a prime-time drama that is not afraid to show the kinds of things that people actually get up to in their lives, as opposed to vague references to "naughty" behaviour or the sound of a distant toilet flushing. This "in yer face" approach is to be encouraged, simply because it's so rare. Yet it also begs comparison to that classic of British anti-establishment media, This Life, a benchmark of this genre of warts-and-all television. But The Secret Life of Us is not overshadowed by This Life. It has clearly learnt some valuable lessons from its predecessor, in particular, the importance of solid acting.
The Secret Life of Us provides an encouragingly fresh take on a genre that has been re-hashed numerous times. It is a great start to the TV viewing week and the morning-after "debriefing" with friends and colleagues gives us the permission to reveal the very human frailties and insecurities that we have just seen played out on the small screen in its attempts to reflect our lives. Don't forget, this is about us . . . the secret lives of us.