Tangle: articles

The edge ... Kat Stewart stars in Showcase's Tangle.

Devil in the details

In family drama, it's the little things that make a big impact.

Who is the modern Australian man? I've never met Dave Rafter, but then, I don't get out much. Erik Thomson plays Dave, who is apparently Packed to the Rafters. He's a better-than-average-looking man with a nicer-than-average family, a much prettier-than-average wife, played by Rebecca Gibney, and a nice suburban life. He probably ticks a lot of fundamental boxes for women and men. He's got thick hair. He seems like pleasant company. Likes his kids.

Not exactly a challenge, his character doesn't turn up in Shakespeare or Underbelly. In the recent excellent BBC interpretation of Great Expectations, it was apparent that there were no characters, good or bad, resembling this docile patriarch. It's hard to say what, if anything, motivates Dave Rafter to get out of bed every day, other than smiling at his really likeable family. So, he's either a brilliantly drawn detailed portrait of a modern Australian man, or he's nobody at all. His wife, Julie Rafter, is more three-dimensional, and warm. Like soft Sara Lee ice-cream, nobody doesn't like Rebecca Gibney. Her Julie Rafter appears to have a trajectory of her own; some little anxieties, some behaviour very familiar to wives and mothers. At every hurdle, and the series has erected many, Julie is a present and recognisable woman. Gibney is a terrific actor who breathes nuance into her material, gauze though it may be.

Julie's a cheerful cricket, considering she's recently given birth more than 20 years after giving away the last stroller. As the result of so many people in the cast scoring big international jobs, Julie's lost huge chunks of her immediate family. And if the young Rafters continue to leave, chasing shinier baubles, Julie will be unpacking the Rafters and hopefully not hanging from them.

Free-to-air television does a poor job of holding up a mirror to Australia. Our dramas should not only let us hear our own voices but see our own society as we know it, or don't. The Slap became such a talking point that it no longer matters if it was an imperfect adaptation or patchy by episode. Audiences grabbed on with both hands. Ratings suggest the Rafters are loved, but possibly by a different crew.

Tangle (Showcase, Sunday, 8.30pm) is a show that fewer people see. Still a soap but more like a hand-wash cycle for your delicates. This third series is something of a luxury for viewers who've come a long way with a close-knit, messy Melbourne family. More bound together by circumstance than choice or barbecue, these characters have survived death, infidelity, teen angst and failure.

Tangle's recognisable and dynamic teenagers are not accessories but essential to every aspect of the story. They are revealed intelligently to the audience, even when they remain a mystery to the unhappy and confused adults.

The men of Tangle are interesting, in that they have a lot more going on than poor, smiling Dave Rafter, but they are still fundamentally foils for the women. Tangle women are all middle-aged but, unlike Julie Rafter, nobody has "ended up" anywhere. They are complex screw-ups in motion.

Justine Clarke delivers a lost widow and mother who clutches at straws, her dead husband's best friend and brother, waiting for something to stick.

Catherine McClements's character mixes dissatisfaction, good intentions and blind crazy in a woman who might stalk a stranger, hide under the Doona in her dressing gown or run for government. She is fascinating because she is always on the verge of something terribly dangerous, or thoroughly, Catholically good. Kat Stewart brings us an arrested adolescent who comes to parenting late but can't let go of her inner bad girl.

This precarious balance means that her next move could totally undo her fragile teenage son, or liberate him. We have a dramatic crucible.

Familiar characters walk on a wire. Tension builds, yet nothing outrageous occurs. The teenagers' school uniforms are believably dishevelled. Hardly anybody uses a hairbrush, let alone a blow-dryer. The contents of their bookshelves and fridges ring true.

These are small but thoughtful details, which every good drama gets right. The Sopranos and Shameless are universally appealing because of the truth of the performances and details.

Tangle tilts at a quality windmill. There should be plenty of drama of this calibre, reflecting so many aspects of our own lives. It's a terrific start, and something that should make Dave and Julie Rafter a little bit uncomfortable.

By Ruth Ritchie
March 24, 2012
Sydney Morning Herald