RESCUE Special Ops: articles

The team members are all things to all people and still manage to convene for the obligatory daily debrief.

Lights, camera, too much action

The Rescue squad just can't catch a break and nor can optimistic audiences.

THE trouble with being a member of an elite emergency services unit is you can never enjoy your weekend. That road trip with your boyfriend is never going to happen. Your sex life has stagnated and you have not once brought home your harness for recreational use. The gods of action TV will conspire against your every relationship, except the one you have with adventure.

And so it goes for the stars of Rescue: Special Ops. In accordance with the times, its title was recently truncated to the more cryptic but succinct Rescue. This is perhaps an effort to hoodwink fans of Animal Rescue, Renovation Rescue, Bondi Rescue, Search and Rescue and Rescue Me. The public certainly has an established appetite for distress, whether the victims be damsels, dachshunds or douchebags.

Rescue is now in its third year, which is good news for Underbelly actors who were whacked in season one.

Underbelly alumni pop up in most Australian productions, kind of like the late, versatile Bill Hunter.

Many went on to Channel Ten's Rush, another fast-paced cop drama that, in terms of popularity, is Coke to Rescue's Pepsi. Personal tastes vary, though. Maybe cola isn't your cup of tea.

The performances in Rescue range from proficient to terrific and so they should. There are 376 acting schools in the Yellow Pages, which means there are more acting schools in Australia than there are TAFEs. I'm not sure that's what the government meant by ''education revolution''. Although it does explain why your barista has probably won a silver Logie.

But more complex than a skinny-extra-hot-soy-decaf-mochaccino, rescue shows are logistically difficult in the modern era. The ubiquity of mobile phones means stranded persons must either have theirs broken or be out of signal range, which, granted, could be the CBD if they are with certain carriers.

Plot lines revolve around characters who are trapped, which poses another problem: they are trapped! One scene featured a rescued criminal who surreptitiously ran away after being pinned under a car, and a woman who was saved from the ledge of a building fled supervision three times. These guys might serve and protect but you wouldn't want them to babysit.

There is a further inbuilt and curly obstacle in that the agency is fictional. The jurisdiction of Special Ops is woolly and overlaps with other services. Officers must say things like, "I'll let Detective Johnson know," and "The firies can deal with this!" or "It'll take the bomb squad at least 30 minutes to get here," to explain why they're not at the pub. Special Ops are equal parts engineer, detective, paramedic, relationship counsellor, tradie and superhero.

The show moves at breakneck speed. Literally. One of the team members recently broke his neck.

In one 42-minute episode, a patient nearly had his arm ripped off by a bottling machine, a crew member was kidnapped and left to suffocate in an airless room filled with oxidising agents, a jilted lover jumped out of a third-storey window to his death and another crew member found and tried to single-handedly defuse a home-made chemical time bomb (complete with giant clock face and red and blue wires). There was another attempted murder, a bloodied woman crawled through a ceiling vent and an explosion destroyed a family business. All in the one building.

Not to mention the obligatory ''will-they-or-won't-they-and-do-I-really-care?'' love story between two squad members. Rescue's rhythmic build and release of tension is well executed but overplayed. Compelling scenarios too easily escalate into improbability. Action is piled upon action, resulting in loose ends and non sequiturs.

Banter back at the station is a staple so sacrosanct that all staff members are required to attend, even if the day's horrors would entitle them to a full year's stress leave. Ultimately, all the stuff that doesn't add up adds up.

To calibrate, I watched an episode of Police Rescue, the ABC program that aired in the 1990s. Police Rescue was made by the same production company that makes Rescue and both have the same premise. Maybe it was special guest star Russell Crowe's bromance with Gary Sweet but this was Australian rescue drama at its most mesmerising. The authentic action was a vehicle for the real drama of the characters' lives. It was a time when alpha males hit the sauce, not the gym.

Rescue's restlessness speaks to an uncool insecurity, as if its plot points are the result of pre-emptive anxiety over minute-by-minute ratings. Conventional cop shows make the best prime-time viewing because punters who are deflated by a work day enjoy seeing a world of chaos brought to order — a convenient and guaranteed form of sustenance.

The benchmark US police procedurals are undemanding not because they are stupid but because they are flawless.

Without a Trace, Bones, Cold Case, NCIS, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist — each week is a tightly wrapped package. The universes they create makes perfect sense. It's commendable that Rescue can make 22-episodes on the equivalent of a single day's catering budget in the US. But Australian baristas are capable of producing more than froth.

By Daniel Burt
July 7, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald