Winners & Losers: articles

Winners and Losers not all new

The Australian drama about four school friends reunited taps into a well-worn 20-something genre

Tonight, women around Australia will be tuning into Winners and Losers. Billed as Australia's "most popular new drama", the show features four old high school friends Frances (Virginia Gay), Sophie (Melanie Vellejo), Bec (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith), and Jenny (Melissa Bergland) who meet again at their 10-year reunion.

During school they were "losers" who hid in the toilets to avoid megabitch bully, Tiffany (Michala Banas). But despite the friends' personal and professional successes since Year 12, Tiffany is still hideous. So they ditch the reunion and buy a lottery ticket. The next morning, they've won $8million.

As the title and the plotline suggest; the show explores what makes a winner and what makes a loser in life. But the focus is also firmly on the four Melbourne women and their rekindled friendship. Creator Bevan Lee (whose previous hits include Packed to the Rafters, All Saints and City Homicide) calls the show a "charmedy", or charming mix of comedy and drama.

The four Melbourne girlfriends are fast becoming a Tuesday night staple. It debuted with a stellar 1.6million viewers, making hay in the 18-39 and 25 to 54 female demographics. Last week, its fourth episode scored a still-impressive 1.3 million viewers, with only Channel 7 stable mate My Kitchen Rules proving more popular on the night.

Late last month, the show was picked up by Fremantle Media which plans to take it to Cannes and sell it to overseas buyers. "It has all the right ingredients to be a big global success", Fremantle chief executive David Ellender said.

But is there really anything new about it?

For all the hype, Winners and Losers will be strangely familiar to even the most casual television observers.

Frances is a Harvard-educated career woman who is always on the phone and in corporate gear. Unlucky in love and lacking in emotional intelligence, she can't quite shake the (unfounded) high school rumour that she is a lesbian.

Sophie is "HOT"and she knows it. Just like Monica on Friends, she was obese as a teenager but miraculously turned buff after school. Sophie also loves to party, is promiscuous and won't say no to a line of cocaine. She was the dux of Year 12, but gave up her medical studies to work as a personal trainer.

Bec is a sweetheart girl next door. She's the nice one who wears a lot of floral prints, owns a beauty salon and has been waiting for her boyfriend of 10 years, Matt, to set a wedding date. It's been a long wait.

And finally there is Jenny, who is an ultimate "dag". She hates her dead-end job in a call centre, is desperate and dateless, self-conscious about her weight and at 27, still lives with her parents.

Along with their contrasts in personality, Frances, Sophie, Bec and Jenny cover off the physical combinations of tall and short, thin and fat, blond, redhead and brunette.

"It's like the group of friends that I have: charmingly mismatched, but honestly connected to each other," Gay who plays Frances said recently.

But it's also like the friends who made up one of the most talked about television programs of the naughties. Take out the explicit sex talk and trendy New York locations and Winners and Losers could be a 20-something, Melbourne version of Sex and the City.

Granted, Carrie's complicated writer character was more neurotic than cliched and she didn't live with her parents but there was still Miranda (career woman who always got it wrong with men and whose boss thought she was gay), Samantha (promiscuous party girl who had a glamorous job organising parties) and Charlotte (hopeless romantic, who was all about the diamond ring).

Across the pond there is Mistresses. The popular British series features four (that magic number again) best buddies who have contraband love affairs in Bristol. There is neurotic lynch-pin Katie, corporate star Siobhan, party girl Jess, and cake-baking mum, Trudi (a later model Charlotte).

Look further afield and where there are collections of female characters, they predictably fall into uni-dimensional variations of shy, fun, tarty, blonde, brunette, redhead, ring-seeking, sport-loving or career-devoting.

The Spice Girls took it to the nth degree with their themed costumes and nick names, but there is also Charlie's Angles, Lipstick Jungle, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and even Little Women.

Philip Parker, author of The Art of Scriptwriting, says that stereotypes are often used in TV because they play into out pre-existing cultural understandings, so the "audience knows what to expect". While easy-to-navigate stories and characters make for comfortable viewing, Parker warns, "the narrative becomes predictable and ultimately boring".

Creator Lee thinks that Winners and Losers is an accurate depiction of young women today. As he told The Australian, "[Winners and Losers is] honest to what I know is going on in the lives of women in their late 20s".

But so far, the plotlines have stuck firmly to cliche. The four episodes to date reinforce the idea that girls who have casual sex do so because they have psychological problems, that successful career women are mannish and that thin people are winners while overweight people are losers.

There is little balance or nuance. Both Bec and Jenny are portrayed as marriage-crazy, dreaming about bridal magazines and "perfect" days. On the flipside, Frances and Sophie are totally clueless when it comes to feelings.

Winners and Losers also perpetuates the American movie idea that school days are something to be nostalgic about even if they were awful and you spent the entire time in the ladies. Audiences will also be familiar with the storyline that girlfriends even if they are besties are regularly horrible to each other.

With its lottery-funded shopping sprees and girly get-togethers, clearly Winners and Losers is about entertaining, not confronting, audiences on a Tuesday evening. But with so many recycled ideas packed into the hour-long episodes, how long will viewers keep tuning in?

By Judith Ireland
April12 , 2011
Canberra Times