East West 101: articles

101 ways to fight crime

SBS cop series is a winner despite low ratings, writes Harriet Alexander.

AS THE cast and crew of East West 101 slope into the final days of filming, weariness is beginning to fuzz their minds.

Three weeks earlier, they were shooting at a disused medical facility at Kurnell in Sydney, appropriated variously as a morgue, hospital and abandoned warehouse. There, they shot firearms, fought hand-to-hand and chased one another down corridors with the same fleeting intensity as schoolyard horseplay. But the scenes at police headquarters have been left for last and 16-hour days holed up in the same few rooms of a Surry Hills office block is another kind of intensity again.

"Feels like 10 years," director Peter Andrikidis says.

These are probably the last few hours the group will assemble to film the SBS cop drama, its likely final season, which screens on Wednesday nights. The network pushed for a fourth but Andrikidis says the characters are pushed to such extremes this season that there is nowhere left to go.

For many, the show has been a love project between higher-profile and better-paid gigs. Don Hany emerged from obscurity to play hero Zane Malik in the first season in 2007. Since then, he has starred in Dirt Game, Tangle and Offspring. Susie Porter is a movie star. But they are evangelical about East West 101, which struggled to pull more than 150,000 viewers last season, yet boasts a swag of Logie and AFI awards that many higher-rating programs will never achieve.

"You could ask any Australian actor what drama show they want to be on and 100 per cent of them will say East West 101," says newcomer Matt Nable, who successfully pursued the role of Detective Neil Travis when he heard it had been created for the third season. "It's probably more authentic than anything being written at the moment."

The drama centres on the Major Crime Squad, a fictional unit that investigates crimes spanning Sydney's various ethnic groups. Each series has a continuing thread, as well as a unique story for each episode, and all look critically at what the changing political reality in the Middle East means for Australia.

"With the first series," Hany says, "we had a look at depicting a multicultural team within a white population post-September 11 and at a time I don't think anyone else had really attempted that. The second one we looked at dismantling our preconceptions of immigration. And this series I feel we're now looking at … what our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq means to our daily life. So many shows prefer to provide entertainment and to be easy viewing. That's something I'm proud East West at least attempts to challenge."

However, Hany acknowledges the provocative subject matter might also have turned away viewers. Responsibility for the show's failure to convert critical acclaim into ratings success is invariably sheeted home to SBS - that it fails to promote the show, that it puts it in a difficult timeslot or that the network itself is largely ignored. Hany just thinks evening viewers aren't necessarily looking to be challenged.

Andrikidis demurs. He cites upcoming shows such as Cloudstreet and The Straits as evidence of a shift towards the production of more cerebral dramas. "Underbelly was the same kind of hardcore thing on Nine and it attracted 2 million people," Andrikidis says. "If [East West 101] was on Nine, it would be a different show but it would certainly get that audience."

For the makers of East West 101, its reputation among actors is a barometer of its success and makes their job a lot easier. The series relies on guest stars from diverse backgrounds. The clamour from actors to be involved makes for a much wider casting pool. Equally, the track record lubricates the process for the existing cast and crew. The actors are confident it will look good and the writers know how they interpret their characters.

"I wanted our characters to have a lot at stake," producer Steve Knapman says. "So we had to get some passion and emotional drive. You can avoid the dark side of life if you like - and plenty of shows do and they're very good - but we're interested in going deeper."

So if it fulfils that imperative - and its trophy cabinet suggests it does - doesn't that outweigh the kudos of high ratings? "Awards are nice but, frankly, if we could pull a record number of viewers to the show I would be a lot happier."

The first season averaged more than 330,000 viewers. SBS hopes to return the series to that this year using a bigger marketing budget. Last year, it was up against Packed to the Rafters and lost more than half its audience.

The beauty of East West 101 is that it achieves SBS's multicultural goals without seeming contrived. Andrikidis has witnessed the tangible benefits of ethnically diverse programming.

"My grandfather saw a Greek father on a cop show and he suddenly felt Australian," he says. "That's the great thing about presenting people as Australian and they can become actors, too."

East West 101 screens on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SBS.

By Harriet Alexander
April 21, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald