Love My Way: articles

The secret life of character

Australian drama is paying the price for underestimating its audience. By Peter Craven.

SO LOVE MY WAY IS BACK with a second series on pay TV, looking just as resplendent and taking itself just as seriously as ever. Love My Way is the love-and-pain saga of a group of people in their 30s, led and co-produced by Claudia Karvan, which won accolades at last year's AFI awards. It drips with style and emotional heaviness without, by definition, commanding a mass audience.

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of the Australian audience for drama. How it should be conceived of, whether and how it might have fancies that should be tickled or preoccupations that are worth penetrating and parading.

Love My Way came, after all, out of the quest to find something that might follow The Secret Life of Us, the versatile, complex show about people in their 20s, committing themselves and not committing themselves, taking it hard and taking it easy, which seemed to represent some kind of paradigm shift in an Australian TV series because it appeared to speak to a youthful audience with a new intimacy: crotch to crotch, eyeball to eyeball, maybe even heart to heart.

It was an inventive show graced by Claudia Karvan and Vince Colosimo, Sibylla Budd and Sam Johnson, by Dan Spielman and Deborah Mailman, and it spoke to its demographic - the joint-smoking, rave-attending, cinema-going horde of sexual experimenters that they are or imagine themselves to be - by having an individual take on them.

They could also be young doctors, Aboriginal girls at university, gay men in animal costumes doing television, seekers attracted to religion, blokes in bars, roughs with dogs come to the city, gay men working in bars, or girls trying to find an identity compatible with a career.

It sounds easier than it no doubt was, partly because The Secret Life of Us created the illusion that its title waved in the air like a banner of knowingness: that it was intimate with the rough and tumble, mingling torments and picnics, of young Life itself.

It was a winner for quite a while, selling bucketloads of McDonald's, zit cream and tampons to the consumerist young. But anything that was a winner for just a while is inclined to look like vanished magic to those who pursue the ghost of Australian TV drama.

Hence the failure of The Cooks, which Channel Ten sported last year, which presented the post-Secret Life spectacle of young people - though some of them had kids of their own - getting down and dirty, panting and thrusting among the pots and pans.

The show had potential but what seemed to go wrong with The Cooks - apart from the title, which summoned up the disconcerting conglomerated image of Nigella and Jamie and the Fat Ladies - was the fact that these sizzlers and stirrers, hopping about kitchens in their underpants, seemed like such a blatant allegory of young feckless, actorish, TVish people.

That's one of the things that go wrong with TV drama: when the people producing it are not inventive enough to get away from themselves. It can happen at any level. The Cooks was (sorry) an obvious turkey, but a version of it infects Love My Way. At times, this handsome and intense saga - which lingered excruciatingly on the collective grief at the death of the Karvan character's daughter in the first series - seems so up the fundament of its own intensities that it could only have been put together by a bunch of actor luvvies.

Everyone is coping with their panic attacks or their shoplifting habit or their grief and taking such an earnest bath in their emotions that you feel as if you have wandered into a group of actors doing Method exercises.

Karvan, for instance, strives for such authenticity in Love My Way, she mopes and gazes and rages with such wide-eyed emotional "truth" that you wish someone would stick a pin in her.

Don't get me wrong. The acting in general in Love My Way is very good - Asher Keddie, in particular, as the young wife and mother is superb - it's just that you sometimes feel that your nose is being pressed up hard against the glass of some professionally histrionic people taking a bath in their capacity for seriousness.

It can be just a bit like those films Woody Allen made 20 years ago - Interiors, say - in which he was so intent on doing a homage to Ingmar Bergman, he had eliminated the jokes so completely, that it was impossible to take him seriously at all.

That's the recurrent risk with our TV drama, that it will head into the bathos of bad seriousness. Some years ago that started to happen with one of the best TV series in Australia, stormy and stylish crime show, Wildside.

Its audience was with it all the way - the older policeman looking for his son; the sensitive female doctor trying to forge integrity, caring for others after her marriage is ruined; the decent ex-prostitute; the young Aboriginal social worker; the angry young detective. It was all great stuff, but then it started to bite off more than it could chew.

We would get Alex Dimitriades confronting the the sexual abuse he was subjected to as a child (or some such monster of a subject) and everything would start to look like the self-regarding melodrama of actors doing improv.

It's a recurrent temptation with television. People find what seems to be the key to an audience's mythologies, they appear to have done something radical by penetrating a new demographic, but then they dissolve in a sea of seriousness.

Why? Is it partly that Australian TV drama seems intimately tied up with the pursuit of the Higher Soap (that is, with the ongoing saga of personal life) and that, as a nation, we're inclined to tilt into literal-mindedness when it comes to drama?

I think it might be. After all, one kind of television drama we're extremely successful at is represented by Neighbours. In practice, if you sit down and watch a whole week of Neighbours at a stretch, you realise that its relaxing rhythms of melodrama and mundane bearable life is achieved with quite a bit of skill and that there is a lot of offbeat comedy and diversion working to get that seamless effect of middle Australian life.

It helps, though, that a massive - and stable - audience that's intent on football practice and ballet and homework is there to buoy the whole thing up.

The audience of kids and families works as a buffer against any tendency in Neighbours for the producers to imagine that the audience is some version of their artistic selves, and go in the direction of Love My Way.

One of the recurrent horrors of Australian TV drama is a kind of applied Helen Garnerism. Garner wrote superb fiction (and now equally good non-fiction) staying close to the grid of personal emotion. But the same principle, when we're not in the vicinity of art, can topple television into pretension and lose the audience.

The irony, of course, is that Garner, in the '80s, wrote a couple of superb film scripts: Two Friends for Jane Campion and the novelistic The Last Days of Chez Nous, which Gillian Armstrong directed, starring Kerry Fox, Lisa Harrow, Miranda Otto, Bill Hunter and Bruno Ganz, among others.

The different kinds of outcomes with Love My Way and The Cooks are both tied up with The Secret Life of Us and the quest for an audience.

Another way of playing this is to forget the audience. To find the kind of drama you want and just go for it. The argument for doing this is that success, whether it's artistic or commercial (or, best of all, both), is likely to be counter-intuitive anyway. Would anyone have believed that Marc Cherry's idea for Desperate Housewives, the chronicle of the disordered lives of a group of early middle-aged stay-at-homes, narrated by a girlfriend who's killed herself, would conquer America and subsequently the world?

In a parallel field, did Matt Groening dream up The Simpsons by thinking about demographics? It's worth bearing in mind that the great successes of commercial entertainment contradict this.

Theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh once said you should never do something because you think it will sell. Do it because you want to do it, he said, and you'll be able to sell it. And yet his revamped Mary Poppins stage show has people howling for more.

But isn't this how it works? Andrew Knight may or may not have brooded about shows like Hamish Macbeth or the Irish Ballykissangel when he decided to do Seachange. Yes, it was something like that formula of the enclosed world, idyllic but threaded with different dramas, which could be poignantly if tranquilly surveyed, but how he ran with it.

And the saga of Sigrid Thornton as a magistrate in this beach community and the sexual tension with David Wenham . . . It worked, in part, because it was offbeat, because it was at an odd angle to the well-worn path of Australian cliche, even if it had precedents dating back to Blue Heelers through Bellbird.

Australian TV drama is in the doldrums and it needs to do justice to its potential audience by not predetermining that audience's limitations. Is it inconceivable that no one in Australian television could ever learn anything from other related fields?

A few years ago Stephen Sewell wrote a remarkable play, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America. This harrowing play was about the horrors that could ensue in an America where anti-terrorist measures became deranged. That kind of thing may imply politics, but that's not the point. It was, as it was performed by Tom Burlinson and Allison Whyte, engrossing, nail-biting drama. Does Australian TV drama really have nothing to learn from the man who co-wrote The Boys?

Are we so much the opposite of a clever country that people in television don't realise that if they give Australian drama their best shot they will find an audience for it?

They could do worse than think of the writers we have, at every level, artistic and popular. You don't have to like everything that Hannie Rayson has done to realise that, like Helen Garner, the way she can wind together the comedy and the intensity of everyday life - as in Hotel Sorrento or Life After George - could carry us a long way, either in a miniseries or a full series.

Is it completely lost on those who aspire to do TV drama - Sandra Levy who left the ABC for Channel Nine to pursue this medium, for example - that Garner herself writes the best dialogue in the country, or that the proliferation of Australian writing in the last 30 years would be easy pickings for television?

Has it never occurred to anyone that the readership for Peter Carey's novels (one of which, Oscar and Lucinda, was filmed by Gillian Armstrong and starred Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett) might like to see him dramatised in miniseries form on TV? That the same could be done for Patrick White or Amy Witting or Jessica Anderson or David Malouf?

And that is simply the popular extension of literature.

We do also have popular writing which cries out for TV drama versions. A couple of years ago, John Clarke and Sam Neill did a couple of Shane Maloney novels as telemovies. Why not have a Murray Whelan series with David Wenham?

For years now, Kerry Greenwood's Phrynne Fisher books )- a female Lord Peter Wimsey in a nostalgic, '20s setting - has been an Australian TV series waiting to happen. Peter Temple's Jack Irish stories would be equally good TV.

Never mind the Matthew O'Reillys and John Marsdens, who would command an almost automatic audience if someone had the minimal imagination to put them on television.

And do we imagine that we lack the know-how to do this? With the recent Golden Globe awards, we were reminded that Fred Schepisi ( the director of The Devil's Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith - from the Keneally novel) directed the award-winning American telemovie Empire Falls, from the novel by Richard Russo.

Does anyone seriously think that Fred Schepisi couldn't make television that would seize the nation's imagination? Are we really so dim that we need graphs and surveys about audience demographics?

The second series of Love My Way screens on Sunday on Foxtel's W channel at 8.30pm; programs are repeated throughout the week up to Saturdays at 3pm.

By Peter Craven
February 18, 2006
The Age