Blue Heelers: articles

Best and worst of crime wave

Crime has always been the cornerstone of television drama. There’s even more of it about than sex, though there are times when the two are intertwined.

On any given week, free-to-air channels put about 20 crime-based shows to air, some of them long-running and much-loved. The Bill, of course, is right at the top of the list, though there is more than a little rumbling in the ranks from fans who think the series has run off the rails entirely.

“Why can’t we go back to days when the episodes were half-an-hour long and were devoted just to catching criminals,” they moan. Now, lengthened episodes of The Bill are as likely to be devoted to the domestic situations of the coppers as their ability to land their prey.

But much as these fans complain about the direction of the series, they continue to watch it in big numbers and so The Bill abounds, twice a week on the ABC and endlessly in repeat on pay-TV.

Australia has never had a crime series to rival The Bill, though Police Rescue came close. Its ABC stablemate, Wildside, won critical acclaim, if not enough viewers. And then there’s Blue Heelers, certainly the country’s longest-running series involving police officers. Does it count as a crime series? Probably not. It’s a bit of a joke these days, isn’t it?

It’s set in this mythical country town called Mt Thomas, where the level of crime is so high, and so varied, that sociologists would flock there to find out why there is so much murder and mayhem. It looks benign enough, sort of green and placid, yet beneath the gum trees there lurk the deepest and darkest criminal minds.

The town’s fame has spread, too (a legacy of the days when the series was a hit) and now most of the country’s worst criminals seem to flock there. I bet property values have plummeted.

Overseeing all this is the portly presence of Tom Croydon, his tummy expanding in direct proportion to the number of felons in the lock- up. No matter how many Logie nominations he gets, he just can’t win a promotion. He sits behind his desk, day in, day out, a voice of reason to keep his young staffers in line.

Sometimes he gets an adventure of his own, but mostly he’s desk- bound since his chances of catching a fleet-footed felon are about as good as mine. Which, when you think about it, makes John Wood’s acting life a bit of a doddle, really.

Then there’s PJ—does he never hanker for promotion? Though perhaps he’s realised that he could never hope to meet the depth of criminality that Mt Thomas offers him, even if he were to have a direct job-swap with the blokes from CSI.

Blue Heelers may not be with us much beyond this year and while it may be missed by some, it belongs to a different era of Australian television. These days there’s something vaguely embarrassing about it—you find yourself quickly changing the channel when the doorbell rings, for fear that someone might find you watching it.

Which takes us, circuitously, to the best crime series around these days, right up there with NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues. They are, of course, Law and Order and CSI.

Law and Order is an industry all by itself—so many spin-offs has it spawned, all of them successful. The good news is that there is another due next year, called Law and Order: Trial by Jury. It will join the previous offshoots, SVU and Criminal Intent. There’s another CSI, too, to join CSI: Miami, this time CSI: New York.

Both series have found multiple timeslots during the week, Law and Order on Ten and CSI on Nine. And they rate very nicely.

The oldest and best is Law and Order, now entering its 15th season in the US. It works so well for many reasons, the most compelling that it resists the temptation to do any more than tell a tight story—to set up a crime, to solve it and put the baddies in the dock.

There are no deviations, no domestic dramas. Just professionals doing their job, yet with enough freedom to b~e real people as well. The scripts are as tight as a drum, the performances spare yet completely satisfying. And there is the bonus of an ending you can debate among yourselves for the rest of the evening.

They lose as often as they win, which adds a dimension to the drama and takes it well beyond the down-home folksiness of Mt Thomas.

By Pam Casellas
June 01, 2004
The West Australian