All Saints: articles

Simple formula gives punters want they want

HEART-STOPPING 200TH EPISODE—Will Terri lose her baby?" screams the cover of the latest edition of one of the weekly fanzines. It's a "Special All Saints Collectors' Issue", with page after page of pictures and trivia from the first five years of Channel Seven's Sydney-made hospital melodrama.

Remember when a former patient tried to rape Terri in 2000? Or when the ambulance was hijacked by a psycho? Or when the medical centre was bombed? This show has had everything.

When All Saints was launched in February, 1998, most critics thought it would not last. But as one of the few who did, I have not been surprised by its generally good ratings. It deserves the accolades it will get in the next two weeks leading up to episode 200 on Tuesday, September 10. In that milestone episode, the series' main character, former nun and ward Sister Terri Sullivan (played by Georgie Parker), is rushed to hospital fearing she is about to lose her baby, fathered by doctor Mitch (Erik Thomson). Stock up on the tissues!

But the show's continuing success, along with that of its even older stablemate Blue Heelers, and Nine's McLeod's Daughters and Stingers, raises an interesting question. Why do those shows work so well, week after week, while the latest batch of new Australian dramas—Young Lions, Marshall Law, MDA and White Collar Blue—struggle to find an audience? After their first few weeks, none of them have more than a million viewers nationally, whereas Blue Heelers last week had almost two million.

The failure of the four new dramas is the talk of the industry. One theory is that they were launched in such rapid succession that viewers are suffering an overdose of Aussie drama. Another is that in the cases of Marshall Law and MDA, they have been thrust into the same timeslot as Nine's well-established Stingers, and that on Tuesdays at 9.30pm there probably is only room for one local drama, maybe two, to survive.

But I suspect that the reason for their dismal ratings goes much deeper. Most of their storylines are relatively complex and demanding, the characters are cynical, and most of the four new local series lack niceness. It's an awful word, but it best sums up the absence of a comfort zone in them. In the cop shows, for example, there is no one to like, or next to no one, not even the heroes. I prefer White Collar Blue to the other newcomers but it, too, is peopled by characters who seem relentlessly aggressive, conniving or morose. It's wearing me down.

Young Lions is no better. The cops in Stingers are much more likable as individuals.

Marshall Law has improved somewhat since its dippy start but it tries so hard to be clever for the sake of being clever that watching it is like having a conversation with someone who has a secret but won't let you in on it. It simply does not communicate anything to me.

MDA, which has improved in dramatic terms more than any of them since its disappointing launch episodes, still leaves me longing for someone to really admire.

You can sneer at All Saints, Blue Heelers and McLeod's Daughters for their melodramatic storylines, their warm and gooey relationships and their generally happy-ever-after endings, but they consistently have earnt higher ratings and given more work to local talent, on and off camera, than any of these newcomers are ever likely to provide. That's because they give viewers what they want.

Take Blue Heelers. Last week it got its highest ratings since the departure two years ago of Lisa McCune's character, Maggie Doyle, and next week, in a two-hour episode—its 365th—Sergeant Tom Croydon (played by John Woods) is wed to the local vicar, Grace. It should pull big ratings, despite Channel Nine's attempt to spoil the event by airing a Bert Newton nostalgia special in the same timeslot. And it deserves to.

As with all of the "special episodes" of Blue Heelers over the years, this one is more than just two hours of petty crime and crowd-pleasing soap. In fact, the wedding plays only a small part. At one stage in the lead-up to the big day, Sergeant Tom looks like he might be arrested for murder.

For those who have ever watched Blue Heelers, or have stuck with it through all the highs and lows, particularly in the past 18 months, it is must-see TV. The reason is simple—the good folk of Mount Thomas are like family. Given half a chance, we would have them round for a beer by the barbie. It's a simple formula, but it works.

By Ross Warneke
August 29, 2002
The Age