Offspring: articles

Comic drama ... The cast of Offspring.

Finding the funny in family

Can Hawke star Asher Keddie carry Ten's new comic drama Offspring?

IT'S a small club. In Australia, producers and networks believe that there are only a handful of actresses with sufficient star power to carry a TV series. The list would include Rebecca Gibney, Claudia Karvan and Lisa McCune but industry types might quibble about who else could make the cut: maybe Sigrid Thornton, Catherine McClements or Kerry Armstrong? Perhaps Kat Stewart, Magda Szubanski, Diana Glenn, Libby Tanner, Noni Hazlehurst or Justine Clarke?

Whatever the specifics, it's a select group and one that Asher Keddie has now joined with the pilot telemovie Offspring and the series Channel Ten commissioned from it.

First episode: Review

Working with writer Debra Oswald (Police Rescue, Palace of Dreams, The Secret Life of Us) and co—producer Imogen Banks (Dangerous, Tangle), producer John Edwards built the project around Keddie, with whom he'd worked on Love My Way and Rush.

Over the years, Edwards (Police Rescue, The Secret Life of Us, Fireflies, The Surgeon) has demonstrated an astute eye for identifying talent and creating dynamic ensemble casts.

Edwards and Keddie had been talking about a suitable vehicle for her for a few years. She was looking for a character to challenge her in different ways from the brittle, tightly wound Julia, who inspired her breakthrough performance on Love My Way.

"We wanted to do something else together but something that was going to be the right vehicle for him and for me," Keddie says.

When they hit on Oswald's nascent idea for Offspring, they reckoned they were on to something. The protagonist, Nina Proudman, is a capable obstetrician racked by insecurity in her private life, where she's plagued by doubts and transported by wishful fantasies.

"I was interested in exploring the personality of a woman who's in her middle 30s who still hasn't really landed in the world," Keddie says. "In her job, she's so responsible, so capable. But beyond it, she's off—centre. She sets up barriers all over the place because she's so frightened. She swings from one emotion to another and tries to make sense of it, then ends up in turmoil because she can't.

"She loves her family and she loves being part of the family but she gets quite a hard time from them. Yet there's a lot of joy in their togetherness. But she's painfully shy with men, really hopeless: she just talks at the ground, she can't get it together.

"I like the idea of playing someone who's uncomfortable in their skin, in a shy way: wanting to please everybody, wanting to fix everything, making sure that everyone else's life was OK but not looking after her own. I wanted to explore someone different from the strong, ball—breaking women that I normally play, because it's more like me."

Offspring is a warm but sometimes darkly comic drama about Nina, her family and their myriad problems. Nina's sister Billie (Kat Stewart) is a loose cannon, temperamentally unsuited to her career as a real estate agent in her father's business. With minimal provocation, the volatile Billie also exhibits a robust resentment of her doctor sister.

"Kat brings so many levels to things, she's so able to humanise the strangest of characters," Banks says.

"We spoke to her about the project very early in the piece and, like most of the cast, she signed up before we had a script." Nina and Billie's brother, Jimmy (Richard Davies), is an inveterate liar with a winning smile who's loved by the ladies. Their parents, Darcy (John Waters) and Geraldine (Linda Cropper), are separated but still have affection for each other.

He's a rare TV creature: an altruistic real estate salesman driven to make home—hunters happy. But he's also a chronic womaniser and, in the pilot, the aftermath of one of his flings is poised to intrude on the Proudmans' life.

Rounding out the cast are Eddie Perfect as musician and labourer Mick, Deborah Mailman as a nurse friend of Nina and Don Hany as the hospital's newly arrived paediatrician, Chris Havel.

"The show is full of hope," Keddie says, her eyes shining. "One of the things that I was attracted to was its sense of possibility. There's so much hope in the opportunities that come Nina's way: the circumstances that she finds herself in are full of joy and opportunity but she can't see them all the time because she's her own worst enemy. She's in a dialogue in her head, which throws her into a state of turmoil because she's low in confidence."

Banks was also attracted to the drama's optimism. "Deb set out to make something that was buoyant," she says. "She really wanted to make this messy, joyful drama that was anchored by the births of the babies.

"It's not a hospital drama but Nina is an obstetrician and she's bringing new life into the world. The drama is framed by that. In the script, you're constantly reminded that you're born with all this potential and then what happens? What do you become?"

Banks likens the framework to that of the highly regarded American family drama Six Feet Under but where that series, with its funeral—parlour setting, was concerned with death and matters of mortality, Offspring is built around births and the sense of possibility that comes with new life.

Banks says that the show has "a slightly elevated tone, somewhere between naturalism and comedy: there's fantasy, there's comedy and there are things blowing up …"

Ah yes, the explosions. Apparently, Oswald was quizzing her son one day about what might entice blokes to watch a show that was primarily about chick stuff, such as relationships. His response was that it might be useful to "blow shit up". So Nina is being hounded by her unstable ex, Brendan (Christopher Morris), a bomb expert who's seeking her attention in alarming ways.

Whether that's sufficiently exciting to attract male viewers remains to be seen. Meanwhile, to keep female viewers engaged, there's the possibility of romance when the whimsical obstetrician meets a paediatrician attractive enough to trigger immediate fantasies of steamy clinches. The sparks between the two are intended to ignite URST (unresolved sexual tension) hot enough to help power the series.

"It's quite hard to cast a paediatrician who's a romantic lead," Banks says. "You want someone who has chemistry with your lead female. In Chris's case, there's a bit of mystery surrounding him, so you want somebody who carries that in him. You also want someone whom mothers would want to hand their children over to.

"And that," she chuckles, "counts out a lot of actors."

Hany, who has been based in Los Angeles since 2004, following his stint on Ten's police drama White Collar Blue, has come home when there's work and, over recent years, that's been often. He's starred in two seasons of SBS's acclaimed police drama, East West 101, as well as Dirt Game, the first season of Underbelly, Rush and the feature Lucky Miles. Edwards and Banks had wanted him for the first season of their pay—TV drama, Tangle, and, though he had been unavailable then, he's currently on—air in the second.

To prepare for his role as a paediatrician, Hany spent quality time with a friend's newborn, changing nappies and learning to cope with a baby's digestive eruptions. His previous experience of playing a doctor gave him no useful tips: "I played a doctor years ago on Home and Away but he was just a wife—beater," Hany recalls. "So we never saw him in hospital; we only ever saw him packing golf clubs into his car. That was the extent of his medical expertise. This is the first time I've played a doctor where there's some medical practice involved."

With Tangle and Offspring, Hany has joined the unofficial company of actors that make up Edwards's troupe. A number of cast members from Secret Life — Karvan, Mailman, Sam Johnston, Catherine McClements, Ben Mendelsohn — have turned up in subsequent Edwards productions. Among the producer's other favourites are Rodger Corser, Justine Clarke, Nicole de Silva and Kat Stewart.

He has a knack for creating vibrant ensembles. In the early '90s, Police Rescue became one of the ABC's most popular drama series. The will—they—or—won't—they tensions between Gary Sweet and Sonia Todd's characters kept breathless magazine stories churning for years.

Ten is hoping that the man who helped give them four seasons of Secret Life and three seasons of Rush can work his magic again with Offspring, which has been given a plum Sunday night timeslot.

By Debi Enker
August 12, 2010
The Age