Crashburn: articles

No cops, no saintly doctor: that's risky

Fancy chancing success on the demise of a romance. Will it crash? Or sizzle, asks Ruth Ritchie

Australian TV drama is nearly always a matter of life and death. We require a cop shop or a hospital, preferably in a country town, with a pub. If the local cop is married to/sleeping with the doctor/vet, even better. Every week, another life hangs in the balance.

We've never fancied a local version of Dynasty or thirtysomething. Not until SeaChange (with the security blanket of a magistrate and the odd cop) were we prepared to watch Australians eke drama out of relationships. Even The Secret Life of Us didn't draw breath without a doctor (Claudia Karvan's Alex) in the house.

All Saints and Blue Heelers stomp safe terrain. MDA (ABC, Wednesday) gets the double whammy by pitting doctors against lawyers and everybody against Jason Donovan. Recently we were lucky enough to get a doctor killed on MDA, and now perhaps a lawyer sleeping with a murderer. Yet MDA is most engaging when the truth of relationships between leading characters creates the tension.

This week Ella's (Kerry Armstrong) possible departure, Happy's unhappy reaction to this news, and Jamie's guilty conscience made gripping telly. They'll be taking all the clips for Logie nominations from this episode.

MDA follows a reliable Australian dramatic formula. A strong attractive woman (Armstrong) must carry on (she's a drover's wife, in the Depression, in a drought, during a sandstorm with as many hungry children as she has sheep) in the face of adversity accompanied by variously weak, amusing, cruel, mostly unattractive men. Starting with Grace Sullivan, Ella is a character in the tradition that made stars of Georgie Parker, Rebecca Gibney, Catherine McClements and Sigrid Thornton.

Will an Australian audience buy into a drama that relies on our interest in the life and death of a marriage? Most of the other successful ingredients have been poured into CrashBurn (Monday, Ten). There's snappy dialogue from Deborah Cox and Andrew Knight (SeaChange). A star-studded cast features a strong, beautiful leading lady (McClements). an impressive sidechick (Sacha Horler) and an assortment of mostly weak and chinless men.

Aaron Blabey is attractive, but he is cast in the honourable chinless mould made popular by Ben Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor. Leading men with chins Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson, Eric Bana go to Hollywood.

There is much to admire in CrashBurn: the confidence of risking such a lampoonable title, the ambition of leaping from male to female perspective, and effortless time travel over 12 years in a single episode.

CrashBurn asks more of its audience, but the return on that investment will ultimately depend on the chemistry between McClements and Blabey. Will we care about the Harfields?

People like nothing better than the birth of a romance except its tortured and untimely demise. CrashBurn offers both, so it should be a winner. Still, the audience may require more than a capital letter in the middle of the show's title to be convinced this is the next SeaChange.

Eventually everybody dies in The Sopranos, but that's not why it's the finest American drama ever produced. The deaths are good but the lives are better. The most poignant moments between characters often occur while burying someone they've just whacked. Sometimes it's a stranger, sometimes a relative. Sometimes it's a funeral in a church, but the best discourses occur between two men, over a corpse and a shovel.

The season finale of The Sopranos (Monday, Nine) was relatively short on blood. Far more disturbing were the death throes of Tony and Carmela Soprano's marriage. One of the most convincing couples on television, their feuding dialogue had a believable ring of finality.

It is pointless to compare James Gandolfini and Edie Falco with Blabey and McClements. Presumably CrashBurn's creators hope the audience will eventually care as much for the relatively innocent, likeable Harfields as we do for the guilty, dysfunctional Sopranos.

Producers are learning there is drama a plenty to be had in renovation, in kitchens, in romance. The Block's finale was good, Jamie's Kitchen was better, but nobody makes an exit like The Sopranos, except, perhaps, the Fishers who finally return next week in Six Feet Under.

Thanks, HBO (and grudgingly, Nine), there is life after a season of truly superior deaths.

By Ruth Ritchie
August 23, 2003
Sydney Morning Herald