Packed To The Rafters: articles

A lesson in blue-eyed subversion

SO! JULIE'S keeping the baby. Were we shocked? Not entirely. But with this series you can never be sure. They have proved themselves willing to Go There in the past. It's one of the reasons we love the Rafters so. And no doubt why more than 2 million people tuned in last Tuesday night.

We kind of thought that there probably would, on balance, and taking all things into consideration, be a decision for the positive. Then again… ? In Rafter-world, you just never know.

This blonde, blue-eyed, absurdly feel-good piece of fiction has shown itself remarkably willing to tackle the big issues, from Grandpa Ted and his cross-dressing to Rachel's black eye and bloody nose. Dementia, drug abuse, domestic violence, the class divide — generally unmentionable in mainstream Australian television — have all been grist to the mill.

And we've loved it. Partly because Rafters is so blonde, blue-eyed and absurdly feel-good. The anodyne, vaguely Aryan wrapping has made all kinds of suburban truths palatable, and sweetened a surprising honesty. There's been a keen — sometimes steely — eye for the quotidian dramas that play out inside double-fronted weatherboards across Australia. Rafters is, in fact, deliciously subversive.

We've also been ready to take the journey with them through some rocky territory because it has never, ever lost its sense of humour. Along with its appreciation of the realities of middle-class life has been a recognition that most of us — when confronted with personal turmoil — don't gaze gloomily into the middle distance. At least not for long. Sooner rather than later, we crack a joke about it. It's the Australian way. Rafters' wry sense of humour has been one of its defining characteristics, and saving graces.

Our embrace of the family and its trials has also been comforting evidence that despite the dominance of Outraged of Balwyn and Disgusted of Mount Eliza in the letters pages and across talkback radio, most of us most of the time are in fact perfectly ready to accept the discussion of difficult issues when they're presented intelligently and without hysteria.

Which is what, on the whole, Packed to the Rafters has done.

And what was really invigorating in those last two episodes was not so much a mature-age pregnancy, but revisiting the issue of abortion, which they'd already tackled head-on late last year. Not since Secret Life of Us has an Aussie drama dared to broach the "a" word so directly. But, last November, Rafters wasn't afraid to unveil the startling truth that nice girls have abortions too. (Along the way it also — gratifyingly — showed us that drug addicts don't necessarily recover immediately after a stern talking to and a session at NA.)

Sure, there was a certain cheerful inevitability about Julie's decision, but in plotting terms it was the right one. Two abortions in the space of 20 episodes would have been pushing public tolerance a little too far. They could never have allowed her to terminate just because she was sick of raising kids. Ergo she or the baby would have had to develop a life-threatening condition, plunging us back into the bad old days when only rape victims and the terminally ill were allowed "choice".

So good on them. There is, after all, nothing like births, deaths and marriages to keep a drama going. And in the scheme of things there's clearly more mileage in another little Rafter than in Ben getting hitched or Ted falling off the perch.

Best of all, in a year in which debate about abortion in the real world has been passionate, sometimes slightly hysterical and often shouty, it was a cosy family drama that facilitated the most sane and comprehensive discussion of this difficult issue.

Three hours of Packed to the Rafters contributed more to the debate than 10 hours of Q&A or a thousand hours of Question Time.

It proved that the most interesting conversations take place not between politicians or journalists, but around the kitchen table.

And that, far from being an idiot box, television at its best is anything but.

By Melinda Houston
April 2, 2009
Sydney Morning Herald