Winners & Losers: articles

Chemistry lesson ... Winners & Losers features a largely unknown cast.

Playing for a win in Rafters timeslot

Seven is gambling that a cast of relative unknowns in new show Winners & Losers can win the hearts of Rafters fans.

The best ideas in television are often the simplest. Channel Seven's hit drama Packed to the Rafters, for example, is built on the foundation stone of family. For its new drama, Winners & Losers, Seven shifts the focus only slightly, to friendship.

"The heart of the show is the idea of friendship and the relationship you have with friends that you've known for a really long time," series producer MaryAnne Carroll says.

"There is a different comfort level there than there is with friends you've made more recently in your life. There's the idea that you can be yourself with those people because they truly know you."

The series opens on the eve of a school reunion that brings together four former friends: fun-loving Rebecca Gilbert (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith), school dux Sophie Wong (Melanie Vallejo), geeky Jenny Gross (Melissa Bergland) and awkward but smart Frances James (Virginia Gay).

At school, they were considered losers. As the reunion gets under way — and the four are forced to face school bully Tiffany Turner (Michala Banas) — they realise they may well be winners after all.

The series was created by Bevan Lee, who Carroll calls a "passionate storyteller", and the executive producer is Seven's head of drama, John Holmes. It's a formidable creative pedigree that has, in recent years, churned out All Saints, City Homicide and Packed to the Rafters.

Rafters, which Lee also created, succeeded because it tapped into something taking place in the broader community — kids moving home in the face of the financial crunch. It is no coincidence, then, that the most sought-after viewers, those aged 25 to 54, are the ones now experiencing 10-, 20- and 30-year school reunions.

Carroll agrees the show is about nostalgia but not "just about the school or the reunion or even the curiosity of finding out how people turned out". Rather, she says, it's about enduring friendships.

Of the show's four female leads, only Gay, who was in All Saints, has a high profile. Vallejo had a small role in Rafters while Tuckwell-Smith and Bergland are unknowns. Carroll says they didn't set out to pick a largely unknown cast.

"Most actors in that age group with a profile are living overseas," she says. "And once we started the audition process, it was crucial to get four girls with the right chemistry together. There was something really magical about the four of them together on the screen that no other combination gave us. It feels like they've known each other since high school."

A pilot for Winners & Losers was shot last year. Holmes, Lee and Carroll then sat down to figure out what did and didn't work — a process of refinement Seven has put all its recent dramas through. It's a significant shift from the old practice of putting a drama series into full-scale production from the outset.

"We can learn from that process in terms of wanting to recast or completely rewrite or revisit the structure," Carroll says. "In the case of Winners & Losers, we found it had an effervescence, a delightful light quality, and we found in making the pilot we could pull that out and develop it and keep it growing and fresh in the other episodes coming along."

The biggest challenge, she says, comes from the show's character-driven nature. More-conventional dramas use procedure to drive the stories. "When you're doing a relationship drama and there is sometimes not a lot happening in a scene, there are lots of other elements you have to keep an eye on and keep developing to keep momentum." These include the editing style, the music, colour palette, costumes and lighting.

"All of that was tweaked from pilot to series," Carroll says. "Not dramatically, mind you, but definitely tweaked."

Carroll's last major project at Seven was police drama City Homicide, which is about to end after four seasons.

Winners & Losers represents a significant change of pace, although Carroll says it has posed challenges all its own.

"The nightmares have stopped," she says. "When you tell really intense, dense murder stories for three years, it takes a while to get out of that mode. Then when you're dealing with the lives, loves, highs and lows of four girls in their 20s, it's really delightful in that it's different. But I thought it would be easier — after all, how hard can it be? No one falls off a building? No one is getting stabbed?

"I underestimated how challenging it is to keep all the ingredients and components working together the best they can possibly be to keep each hour compelling and aesthetically pleasing and affecting. It's difficult in a different way."

Winners & Losers begins on Seven on Tuesday, March 22, at 8.30pm.

By Michael Idato
March 17, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald