Hard News by Russell Brown


What you lookin' at?

Duncan Greive's recent The Spinoff  column The real problem with New Zealand TV drama is a follow-up to his earlier review of the new NZ On Air-funded drama series Filthy Rich. Actually, no: it's a consequence of that scathing review.

Greive couldn't help but witness the indignant response of the show's creators, most notably Gavin Strawhan, who complained on Facebook about "people who think they know about television because they watch it" and averred that "we worked really fucking hard to make this". And yet, Greive writes:

The interesting thing to me was that of the 22 messages I received in the days following the review, almost all were from people working in television – who did know the business from the inside. Many of them have had long, successful careers. One, an actor with one of the most acclaimed shows of the last decade on her CV, wrote that she had “deliberately walked away from TV” because of the way the big dramatic shows continued to be made by the same small set of people.

They wrote with a sense of palpable anguish, one I sensed was borne of the creeping feeling they were getting old and wasting the best years of their creative lives making stuff that no one really cared for or about. These were smart, talented people who found themselves unable to put that intelligence and aptitude on screen. 

I was struck by how much thought they’d put into this issue, how precise their diagnoses of the problems were, and how constructive their various solutions.

The problem, Greive concludes (even managing to set aside his sometimes overdone beef with NZ On Air) is the TV networks. If you've ever made television you will at some point have at least internally voiced the thought that the networks are the worst organisations in the world, staffed by unthinking gatekeepers and what my producer likes to refer to as "programme prevention officers".

So the comments Greive received should be seen in that light. Which doesn't mean they're wrong. But the people on the network side of commercial television work in an increasingly risk-averse business. Even when a locally-produced series is funded by the taxpayer, a failure puts everyone's job at risk. And there have been a few failures in the past five years; more misses than hits. For reasons of politics rather than commerce, the same applies to the funder, NZ On Air, which pretty much lives in a low-level existential battle. No one wants to fuck up.

But, yes, I watched a preview of Filthy Rich and three quarters of the way through I turned to my partner and said: "I don't care about any of these people." The characters (a prostitute with a heart of gold!) seemed by-the-numbers, the set-up and style painfully familiar. I didn't write about it because TV reviewing isn't usually my gig and I know quite a few of the people involved. I also had no wish to watch another episode.

Should producers, funders, broadcasters and creators be more ambitious? Well, probably. But it does bear noting that some recent successes – the boilerplate small-town murder-mystery series The Brokenwood Mysteries and the Aussie co-pro heartwarmer 800 Words – have been palpably content to be what they are. You might say the same about the good ship Shortland Street.

And ambition doesn't always mean good television. I wasn't the only one to sit through the endless two-hour premiere of the Scorcese-Jagger music biz opus Vinyl and wonder what the fuck I'd just watched. Even three eps in and somewhat improved, it still seems remarkably full of bum notes. We caught a glimpse of the Casablanca Records team in the last ep – and I'd already been thinking the producers might have been better off just telling the true, wild story of Casablanca Records than making a Scorcesean contrivance of raging alpha-males.

By contrast, the first series under the banner of American Crime Stories – which sounds like it might usually live on a minor Sky channel – is sensational. The People v OJ Simpson on Sky's Soho tells the story of that awful murder and that bizarre trial in a way that's acutely aware of its contemporary parallels.

As the exagerrated presence of the teeny Kardashian daughters emphasises, a good deal of what we now know as global popular culture was forged in the OJ case. The sensational televised trial, the hungry news channels, the reframing, again, of race in American culture.

But there's another thing, for me at least. I was playing with online services in 1994 and the OJ case was my first taste of following a story via source material. Apple's painfully slow e-World service had a Court TV channel, which published transcripts and written evidence from the case every day. I read most of it and came to the firm conclusion that OJ was guilty as hell – and also properly acquitted.

Another reason I don't write often about TV drama and comedy is that I don't watch a lot of it. (By contrast, my partner watches television in a way that surpasses even her considerable professional interest. She loves it like I love cooking, riding bikes and kicking back to music.)

So the only other thing at the moment of which I'm a committed viewer is The Walking Dead. Most nights we actually watch the episode and then flick over to Freeview Plus and watch the fan wash-up Talking Dead on TVNZ on-demand.

I should probably use the Freeview Plus red button more often. The ad rotates can be a bit glitchy, but it really does work quite well. (NB: If you have a Freeview Plus-capable TV made by LG, you need to turn off LG's "wand" function, by pressing the remote's jog control left or right. Irritatingly, the wand completely disables Freeview Plus.)

Being the kind of household we are, we also have access to Netflix and Lightbox. On the former, we loved Jessica Jones. Otherwise I'm definitely up for another series of Westside – and really pleased that High Road has a third series coming and that Flat 3 Productions continues to make great stuff, and that they're both getting some funding from NZ On Air.

Could those last two work on actual New Zealand television? It depends what you mean. Would they attract an audience that loves them? No doubt. Would that audience contain enough members of the crucial whiteware-buying demographic and would they make it through the network process  unmolested? Not so sure.

The answer, of course, would be a public television channel, where expectations are more manageable and things get room to grow. (Look what Maori Television did with Find Me A Maori Bride.) The alternative would be Lightbox gaining more ready access to NZ On Air-funded productions, which is politically difficult, given its status as a pay service. You can, of course, watch those two and more via your smart TV, your Apple TV or your Chromecast, but it's not quite the same thing.

So anyway, I'm interested in what you filter for yourself from the screen deluge, and what would work for you. Because it does seem we have something to do.

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