The Secret Life of Us: articles

Life slides into slow lane

A veteran television scriptwriter recently offered me his assessment of Ten's new series The Secret Life of Us. While he had enjoyed the opening telemovie, and especially liked the look of the show, subsequent episodes had proved disappointing. Over the past weeks, he said, the characters hadn't seemed to go anywhere: they hadn't developed much since we first met them. There was no sense of a journey.

The writer came from a rival network: he didn't work at Ten, where expectations remain high for this St Kilda-based comedy-drama and where a resolutely cheerful public face is maintained despite a ratings trajectory that might be seen by sceptical eyes as worrying.

Ten had hoped to schedule Secret Life to start after Channel Nine's season of Sex and the City ended, believing that these shows would compete for the same section of the audience. But it has had weeks of Carrie and Co. to contend with, as well as Seven's double-barrelled assault with Boston Public.

When the final episode of Sex and the City screened last week, it attracted a peak audience in Melbourne of 399,000; Boston Public reached 365,000 and Secret Life notched up 275,000. Ten will argue that it's still rating strongly with its target demographic and is keeping its pinkies crossed that the end of Sex and the City will strengthen that base. They're hoping for a steady word of mouth to build the ratings. If what emerges instead is a slow decline, it doesn't augur well for the second half of the series or for its chances of going into a second season.

This would be a shame as Secret Life has a lot to recommend it. Producers John Edwards and Amanda Higgs and lead writers Judi McCrossin and Christopher Lee have collaborated to create a non-generic and modern drama. It's adult and witty and has a sense of community and vitality. Many of the characters are beautifully cast and there's a great chemistry between the actors. There's also a stylistic playfulness that's really appealing.

Deborah Mailman lights up the screen and the sense of easy friendship that has grown between Kelly and her flatmates, Alex (Claudia Karvan) and Evan (Samuel Johnson), is one of the show's strengths. Secret Life also features some of the snappiest dialogue heard on an Australian production.

But I can't help feeling there's some validity to what the rival writer remarked, that Secret Life has lost its initial momentum and seems to be stumbling. While it intends to depict characters at a stage in their lives when they're confused and groping for answers (I wonder when that stage ends?), the show itself shouldn't be. It should feel like it's moving forward.

Yes, the characters can be muddled as they confront life's big questions: Am I gay? Is this love? Have I chosen the right career? Can I save my marriage, and do I really want to? They can make mistakes and behave badly. But one can only take so many scenes where they hang around in each others' flats or congregate at the FU Bar and moan.

Evan's little tantie when he realised he might be falling in love with Carmen (Catherine McClements) seemed silly; Richie's (Spencer McLaren) anguish over his unexpected gay-sex encounter is more petulant than pained. Instead of feeling sympathetic, I've felt like telling him to grow up and stop acting like such a prat. On the other hand, his girlfriend, Miranda (Abi Tucker), who also has a tendency to mooch, has found her voice, literally and figuratively.

Occasionally it seems that, in the commendable effort to fashion strong, vibrant female characters, some of the blokes might have suffered.

In addition, a few of the storylines have dragged on too long. The sniping between Gabrielle (Sibylla Budd) and Jason (Damian de Montemas) has become tiresome. Yes, a failing relationship is full of pain and recrimination, but her stung looks and angry accusations and his aggravated apologies made that point long ago.

It's instructive to look at the British series This Life, by comparison. It dealt with characters at a similar stage in their lives. It also had a community of twentysomething characters linked by where they lived. But, crucially, it integrated them professionally. All the principal characters were, or had been, lawyers. Key parts of the show's landscape were its characters' struggles with their careers: the jockeying for position, the politics of the firm, the cases they were handling.

This integration of their working lives added a dimension and momentum to the series, and gave the characters a place beyond the bars and bedrooms, affording an additional perspective. They might be stumbling around, doing self-destructive things, but there was always a sense that they were doing something.

The characters in Secret Life need not share the same profession, but there's been scant attention to developing this side of them. True, Dr Alex has had a couple of skirmishes that have demonstrated her ambition, intellectual rigor and deficient people skills. And Kelly has mused about love and life from her desk at the dating agency. But consider the gaps. Richie got his big break, but we've never seen him at work: we have no idea if he's a good actor or a lousy one. Ditto for Miranda, who keeps getting knocked back at auditions: is she an untapped talent, or should she be considering a career in the hospitality industry? All we know about Will's work as a scaffolder is that he's easily persuaded to take a sickie. Jason is feeling unfulfilled by community law and considering trading up to the big bucks of corporate work, but he looks like he'd be miserable anywhere he went.

A series can depict confusion without getting mired in it, and a sense of stasis is something no production can afford.

The Secret Life of Us screens on Monday on Channel Ten at 9.30pm

By Debi Enker
August 23, 2001
The Age