When legend Margaret Pomeranz recently spoke out about the obligation of local film critics to support the Australian film industry, she generated an interesting conversation in the critical community. Her article also inspired bookseller Martin Shaw to adopt a similar stance with regards to the literary community, in an op ed that asked why ABC’s The Book Club seemingly avoids covering Australian releases (the only Australian release discussed on the show this year was Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders, which panellist Marieke Hardy repeatedly referred to as a ‘terrible book’).
No one, however, has yet brought this issue to bear on critical coverage of Australian television. Whether it even warrants a similar examination begs the question: what even is TV criticism (let alone Australian TV criticism)? Taking a broad sample from what’s available, local TV crit is a melting pot that includes academic studies and publications; amusing recaps of locally produced reality television and Offspring; or focal interviews or features in the mainstream press; blogs that offer marketing spin or up-to-date news – and of course, Fairfax’s Green Guide still floats around each week, with its smattering of bite-sized reviews and increasingly obsolete listings of broadcaster airtimes. Meanwhile, the likes of Meanjin and The Monthly offer intermittent essays that contain more sophisticated textual engagement and deeper social or political ruminations on Australian television.
Television criticism is a wild, youthful beast that’s hard to tame into definition. Many arts critics dabble in discussion of television, rather than making it the sole focus of their career (perhaps due to the lack of reliable opportunities for television critics in Australia). Would those who err on the side of Pomeranz argue that critics who discuss the small screen in the public sphere are obligated to be critically kind in their local coverage?
To be honest, I don’t have answers. I don’t feel remotely compelled to cast aspersions or make demands about what writers should or should not discuss, and how they should do it. Given TV criticism’s relative infancy and the form’s inconsistency, it would be difficult to apply any guidelines. But I can speak for myself: I do feel an obligation or pressure (self-inflicted, not editorial) to ensure I regularly discuss Australian content here.
I have previously written for The Lifted Brow about my adventures with those flagpoles of arts criticism in Australia – cultural cringe and tall poppy syndrome – when investigating my feelings about Top of the Lake. Essentially, I decided to track my experiencing viewing Jane Campion’s six-part mystery through the lens of judgment that had been smudged by other influential shows from overseas; the likes of The Killing and Twin Peaks weighed heavily in my viewing mind. Given our access to a wealth of international television both old and new, it’s hard to avoid identifying the imprint of influence, and can be tempting to draw comparisons between programs. That said, I still firmly respected and enjoyed Top of the Lake – a complicated co-pro melange from the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand – on its own merits, but navigating my critical response was a complex process.
These are all things I’ve been considering while watching six-part thriller The Code, which concluded on the ABC on Sunday night. Like seemingly every crime drama before it (including Top of the Lake), The Code kicks off with the suspicious disappearance of a young girl (in this case an Indigenous teen), and gradually unveils the seedy, deeply entrenched implications for the surrounding community. Stretching from the dry Australian outback to the steely halls of Parliament House, The Code is a densely plotted drama that focuses on two brothers, journalist Ned (Dan Spielman) and hacker Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), who become involved with the central mystery in a bunch of spoiler-worthy ways. The Code is still available on iView, and I highly recommend you, erm, view it, not only because it features everyone’s favourite Warrior Princess, Lucy ‘Xena’ Lawless, but because it is compelling and stylish television.
What struck me while enjoying The Code is the clear influence of the Scandinavian crime drama sub-genre on the show. Shows that fall into the ‘Nordic noir’ category include the original versions of The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), The Bridge (aka Broen) and Borgen. The Scandinavian television industry has captured the world and conquered the zeitgeist, with as many remakes of Nordic shows as Orphan Black has clones. The resulting shows often share common plot and thematic threads, as well as aesthetic similarities. They depict conspiracy theories with dramatic revelations that destabilise corrupt authority figures, including police and politicians; and also engage institutions on a more micro level, focusing on the role of family and community in contemporary life.
The Code utilises all of these techniques, and also some of Nordic noir’s stylistic traits. The grey sheen is utilised for political sequences, and contemplative montages expose the trickle-down effect of corruption to some seriously melodramatic tunes. However, The Code remains a distinctly Australian show. Its production crew were granted unprecedented access to Parliament House, and its depictions of suburban Canberra, as well as great expanses of the outback, are unfailingly authentic. Scenes of red desert, leafy streets and steely politico-corridors are utilised to underscore the show’s backdoor dealings, cover-ups and general intrigue as they spread across the country. Through it depicts a fictional, darker side of Australian politics (is there even really a brighter one?), The Code touches upon pertinent issues affecting the global market and local audiences, such as the timely issue of metadata retention by authorities.
That said, The Code isn’t without its flaws. There is some stinted dialogue and lacklustre acting from a couple of supporting cast members, but these are largely outweighed by the outstanding central performances. Testament to its credibility as a television show playing in an international field, The Code was sold to foreign territories before Aunty even aired it. But don’t take this international cred as the show’s only legitimising factor – local voices are also praising it, and that definitely says something.