Packed To The Rafters: articles

The cast from Packed to the Rafters, which has recently experienced a sharp drop in ratings.

Confronting the empty plot syndrome

Some serious changes need to be made to bring this one-time heavy-hitter back up to speed.

THE worrying question about Packed to the Rafters at this point is whether it's merely stumbled badly or completely fallen over. The hour-long show, a standard-bearer for both Channel Seven and Australian television drama, has declined in terms of both quality and audience figures.

While there's an easy excuse to justify the latter - it's called The Voice and Channel Nine has had it imperiously infringing on the opening of Rafters' Tuesday night slot - it's difficult to deny that, flashy competition aside, the series is flagging.

In capital cities last week, the third episode of season five drew about 1.1 million viewers, which is getting dangerously close to just half of what Packed to the Rafters was achieving as recently as season three, which aired in the second half of 2010. It's at the point where the dreaded move to 9.30pm is not out of the question. The problem appears to be that the show's success has made its outlook more conservative. In trying to preserve its vast audience, the show runners and the network may well have driven a large number of viewers away instead.

"Well, it looks like there's some romance in the air," Erik Thomson's easygoing patriarch, Dave Rafter, says on this week's episode, earning him a Logie nomination for best stating of the bleeding obvious. Nowadays romance is always in the air on the series, and having a character point that out is akin to a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice musing over whether the show is completely manufactured.

The show has always made use of soap-opera staples, including a baby's birth, a wedding and a funeral (with the latter two rather close in one case), but recently it's neglected to put them to dramatic use. If you think back to the first season, Packed to the Rafters used a genial tone to introduce and observe serious topics, be it spousal abuse or the shame a husband and father has when he can't provide for his family. In their depiction of social strata, the early years were plugged into the national mood, where we fretted about the balance between aspiration and happiness.

Much of that is gone now. Last week's Valentine's Day-themed episode made clear how most of the ensemble cast are being paired up in varying states of success: Julie Rafter (Rebecca Gibney) was fretting over the interest her best friend, Donna (Merridy Eastman), was paying towards her father, Ted (Michael Caton), while her widowed son, Ben (Hugh Sheridan), wasn't sure how to deal with his new girlfriend, Emma (Zoe Cramond), and Dave's employee, Coby (Ryan Corr), was falling for new arrival Frankie (Brooke Satchwell). It's only a matter of time until two-year-old Ruby Rafter finds someone special at playgroup.

What's more, the writing has lost its lustre. The storylines are like little pods that play out over an episode, each separate to what is happening elsewhere. What is occurring for one character no longer has the reach to inform or illuminate what is transpiring for another one. Instead, the dialogue is flat and often bald-faced in setting out its goals. "Everything OK?" someone will ask, when it plainly isn't, as characters turn up to restate their dilemma.

The show's founding idea - that a couple who've been married 25 years suddenly find themselves living with three adult children and a parent - has become diluted. The family home is looking a bit empty and so is the show. Several key characters have departed, including Jessica Marais' Rachel Rafter, while her screen sibling, Sheridan's Ben, is winding up before joining Channel Ten. That network's chief programming officer, David Mott, described Sheridan as "a superstar", which is generous given the self-satisfied tone in the actor's performances of late.

It's unclear whether Packed to the Rafters can undertake, let alone profit from, serious renewal. Satchwell has been lively so far, but she and a Daddo (the Cameron model) aren't going to revitalise the show by themselves. Rafters needs to toughen up, starting on the page, and take a few risks. Right now there's virtually nothing compelling to it.

By Craig Mathieson
May 10, 2012
Sydney Morning Herald