love is a four letter word: articles

Adieu To Love Unrequited

For a brief, shining moment there was love is a four letter word. This sharp-witted series about desire, ambition and the meaning of life was everything you'd hope Australian television could be. It was a lofty example of that oft-touted but rarely seen TV commodity: something new.

Compared to love is, most other Australian series look insipid and retrograde. Blue Heelers, for instance, could have been made 20 years ago—it's A Country Practice meets Cop Shop. Water Rats? It's Homicide with speed boats. All Saints? It's a suds-reduced version of The Young Doctors.

Any Australian show that can offer viewers something different, something brave, deserves praise, if not an award or two. Forget the gold Logie for best new talent, how about a platinum Logie for best new idea? love is a four letter word would have won one of those, hands down.

Yes folks, this show had everything except an audience. Bit of a problem that, and the chief reason for its unfortunate axing. Bad press didn't help matters either. Some critics unfairly described love is as a victory of style over substance. More of that later.

In case you haven't seen the show, love is follows the whimsical vicissitudes of a group of twentysomethings. It is set around an old-style inner-city pub owned by Angus (the elegantly brooding Peter Fenton) and his girlfriend, Albee (Kate Beahan's wonderful study of feminine complexities). The program is essentially a comedy of manners with some fairly harsh facts of life thrown in.

Angus struggles to make the pub a last bastion against the forces of almost inescapable commercialism. He wants the hotel to be a venue where friendship and good music can be fostered. Angus is battling against the enervating but dominant culture of pokies and revamped pubs with all the charm of 7-Eleven stores.

Albee works in publishing. She struggles against an indifferent publishing world that would rather print best-selling crap than art. She learns to her repugnance that it is money, not love, that conquers all.

Angus and Albee have an open relationship. They spend their frantic lives trying to juggle commitments to each other with commitments to other people. It involves compromise. It involves duplicity. It's messy, but it's fun to watch.

Did I say messy? Try this. Angus' father Bernie has a girlfriend half his age called Juliette. Juliette is pregnant but she is not carrying Bernie's child. She had a fling with Angus and the baby is his. There's a marvellous scene in episode 21 wherein Juliette and Angus attend a pre-natal class. The facilitator, who has been used to seeing Bernie, learns that Angus is the child's real father. You watch in amusement as she tries to assimilate this new information. Juliette calmly advises the perplexed woman not to try too hard. ``Maybe the father will change again,'' Juliette observes drily. ``That could be fun.''

These are the kind of interpersonal conundrums so beloved of shows like Sex and the City and, especially, Ally McBeal. And while those American programs have been immense hits in this country, you can't help wondering why love is, which deals in similar themes, didn't captured the popular imagination.

Ally McBeal and love is share a number of characteristics. Both are about sexual politics and alternate between comedy and drama to make their points. Like Ally, love is slides effortlessly in and out of hyper-reality, fantasy and dream sequences. The ``real world'' is constantly given a twist, and live music is used to intensify the mood. While Ally McBeal gets a lot of acclaim for doing this kind of thing, love is a four letter word has gone largely unrecognised for it.

The differences between these shows are more significant. Ally's world is like Disneyland; everything is clean, cute and safe. The world inhabited by Angus, Albee and Co is tangled, tough and scabrous.

The difference is obvious just in the choice of music. The anaemic, middle-of-the-road material of Ally's Vonda Shepard sounds dolefully twee up against the contemporary local music featured in love is. The somewhat malevolent melodies of bands like Machine Gun Fellatio, Endorphin and the Whitlams' Tim Freedman are a gift to the show and help to evoke an authentic Australian sensibility.

For all the alleged stylistic excesses of love is a four letter word, this has been a series firmly grounded in reality. The production design alone has been exceptional—when was the last time you saw sets in an Australian drama that looked like real people lived there? The strong ensemble cast deliciously portray people you feel you know. Paul Barry as Angus' best mate deserves special recognition—his Paul Bannister is a wonderful oily shyster. And Linal Haft as Bernie is a charismatic hoot.

To the love is producers Tim Pye and Rosemary Blight—thank you. The industry rumor is that they are developing other television projects. That's something to look forward to. Let's hope more viewers give their next show a chance.

The final episode of love is a four letter word screens on the ABC on Tuesday at 9.30pm

By Chris Middendorp
July 19, 2001
The Age