The Secret Life of Us: articles

Secret Life's clean sweep

I've been wanting to write something about The Secret Life of Us for a while and Debi Enker's piece last week damning this new Australian drama series with faint praise has inspired me to come to its defence.

First things first. I am a firm believer in the idea that everyone deserves a weekly dose of good quality soap. I have been at various times a dedicated viewer of Blue Heelers, The X-Files, SeaChange, This Life, The West Wing and The Bill.

I've had to work hard to maintain these habits, squeezing them into weeks full of opera rehearsals and theatre reviewing commitments. But I've made the effort because of the intense pleasure these shows have given over the years.

I've loved them because I've loved the characters and their struggles, the teasing plot-lines and the ever-changing relationship dynamics.

I love caring about these fictional folk, in the same way I love getting to know a dotty Elizabeth Jolley character or a dour Ian Rankin battler. They flesh out the world for me, their messy journeys illuminating the journey of my own messy life.

The Secret Life of Us is currently the only TV drama I watch religiously every week.

I watched the first episode principally because of Deborah Mailman's presence on the cast list. Although she's not the first indigenous actor to be given a leading role in an Australian drama, I was intrigued by the apparent absence of focus on her Aboriginality in the pre-publicity. It's an absence that continues to this day and it is astonishingly refreshing to watch.

Her character, Kelly, is just another young woman growing up in a big city, with good friends and not-so-great lovers, chewing over her job worries at the local bar and having plenty of laughs along the way.

Maybe we'll find out more about her past and where she's come from in future episodes, or maybe we won't. I don't mind either way.

Like the other characters in The Secret Life, she is living in an eternal present, inhabiting the moment as most of us could do so much more easily when we were younger. To ring or not to ring the handsome boy, to take or not to take the new job; these are the simultaneously mundane and important kinds of questions that preoccupy most of our waking hours when we're learning how to live adult lives.

So, even without the grit and grind of emotional baggage that some less commercial programs would offer, getting to know Kelly is an engaging project.

Somewhat contradictorily, one of the things I enjoy most about The Secret Life is the way it sneaks those wholemeal moments into the whitebread diet. Recently, Claudia Karvan's character, Dr Alex, was confronted with a medical ethics dilemma. Without so much as a coy euphemism, we were told about a baby born with an enlarged clitoris, which made the issue of gender assignment confusing and traumatic for her parents. Now when did you last hear the word clitoris used on Australian television, let alone without accompanying titters? This show just bowled it up and then moved on to the real issue at hand, i.e., the ongoing power struggle between Alex and her ex-lover/colleague.

Karvan is as relaxed in this role as I've ever seen her on screen, and her character is one of the most complex in the show. We can't judge her when she sleeps with her best friend's lover, because few of us could truthfully claim not to have faced the same temptation at some time or another.

Debi Enker thinks the characters' journeys have become mired in confusion. Just because those journeys are not linear doesn't mean they're not moving. Like an amoeba, Dr Alex is exploring her environment, often without much forward planning, but every direction has interesting possibilities.

Debi Enker also argues that there isn't enough time spent on depicting the characters' working lives in The Secret Life. I don't think it matters. The moments that we enjoy the most and remember the best in our lives are not usually from the daily grind of wage-slavery. They are the footy games in the park, the jokes at the pub, the close encounters of a sexual kind and the shared breakfasts with towel-whipping mock fights.

And finally, to the ingredient that is at the heart of all the best quality soaps. I freely admit it. I want to be in this show. I want to be 20-something again and go to roof-top parties on sultry evenings and watch the sun go down with good friends. It's the same sense of camaraderie that kept millions tuning in to Big Brother.

In a world where the nuclear and extended families have ceased to be the only optional living unit, we often look for love, belonging and a sense of community from our friendship networks. The characters in The Secret Life seem to offer each other all of these things, and I'm getting a lot of vicarious pleasure from it all.

Sian Prior is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster

The Secret Life of Us screens on Channel Ten on Monday at 8.30pm

By Sian Prior
August 30, 2001
The Age