You know it has been a bumper year for Australian television when shows as good as The Newsreader and Firebite get listed in the bottom half of the top 10 titles. The stench of 2021 provided a challenging period that most of us would like turfed into the dustbin of history – and yet the excellent output of the Aussie screen sector reminds us there are some things worth saving.
From an exhilarating vampire series to a euthanasia black comedy, a trippy science show and more, here are the best Australian TV shows of the year.
10. Laura’s Choice
Premiering at Revelation film festival in 2020 and arriving on ABC iView in March, this two-part series captures the journey towards death for the lovable and articulate 90-year-old Laura Henkel, who decided to end her life on her own terms and asked her daughter and granddaughter – Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara – to make a documentary about it. The result is a production told with a tenderness that could only come from family connection, the film-makers imbuing it with ruminative qualities including voiceover narration in the form of letters to their beloved matriarch.
With a warmth and softly inquisitive style that reminded me of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Laura’s Choice demonstrates the power of framing important social issues through a personal lens. Though sad in some respects, it’s an ultimately uplifting story: a celebration of a woman who did it her way, as they say, and left behind a deeply meaningful legacy.
9. The Newsreader
Creator Michael Lucas and director Emma Freeman’s 1980s-set period drama, based in the world of television journalism, has a slightly glossed-over vibe – evoking a feeling that some of the rough edges of history have been smoothed. And yet the series, starring Anna Torv and Sam Reid as colleagues and potential lovers working in a TV newsroom, is crafted with a dignified sensibility and uses historical events as dramatic scaffolding.
Sometimes these events are fun and innocuous (Paul Hogan winning the 1985 Australian of the Year award) and sometimes dark and tragic (the Aids crisis and how it was reported). The elegance of the show’s compositions and the relatability of its well-developed characters keeps it a pleasure to watch.
In Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher’s revisionist vampire series, blood-sucking fiends are sent to hell via boomerangs to the heart. Tyson (Rob Collins) and his adopted daughter Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) patrol the outskirts of Opal City, “keeping this mob safe” before the arrival of head vamp “The King” (Callan Mulvey) throws relative stability into chaos.
Death by boomerang is one small example of how Firebite reinvigorates dusty old genre tropes with a fresh Indigenous perspective, which leads to fascinating political allegories: in this universe, for instance, vampires arrived on the first fleet. The show’s scuzzy junkyard aesthetic is vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, another production (like Firebite) featuring scenes shot in and around Coober Pedy.
7. The End
The ongoing debate about euthanasia and assisted dying doesn’t exactly scream “hilarious”. But this topical and wittingly entertaining series from creator and writer Samantha Strauss turns it into comedy gold, albeit of the darkly humorous kind, walking a tightrope between morbidity and absurdity.
An ultimately humanistic spirit shines through in the story of Kate (Frances O’Connor), a doctor who works in palliative care and is opposed to assisted dying – though her perspective changes after her mother, Edie (Harriet Walter), tries to take her own life. The tone is provocative and a little off-kilter, with occasional moments that take your breath away – including a surreal scene featuring Roy Billing ascending a ladder into the sky.
6. Why Are You Like This
Modern phenomena such as cancel culture and identity politics are, from a comedian’s perspective, opportunities for joke-making but also dangerous minefields to navigate. This prickly comedy (created by Naomi Higgins, Humyara Mahbub and Mark Bonanno) about a trio of super-entitled and opportunistic gen Zers – Mia (Olivia Junkeer), Penny (Higgins) and Austin (Wil King) – rushes right in, entering the domain of the brave and the damned, finding satire in our rapidly evolving cultural mores.
The underlying message is that opportunistic human behaviour will always continue despite and even because of positive cultural change. It’s a ballsy premise, finding dark humour in exploitation of issues including gender, ethnicity and religion.
5. Jack Irish
Originating from Peter Temple’s novels and journeying to the screen in three telemovies and three TV seasons, the final outing of Guy Pearce’s cardigan-wearing gumshoe is a return of sorts to his roots, the plot of a new investigation retrospectively revealing details about the murder of his wife – which kicked off the first Jack Irish telemovie.
In addition to the twisty plotting and pacy execution we have come to expect, the third season has an emotional kick, with poignant character arcs and a satisfying “this time it’s personal” plot. Sprinkled with visions of cafes, pubs and laneways, Australian neo-noir is rarely as good, and rarely as Melbourne.
4. Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire
“White knuckle” is a term critics usually apply to thrillers and action movies, but this alarmingly good investigatory series reminds us that it can describe documentaries too. Comprising three feature-length instalments, the focus is an almost unbelievably horrific real-life tragedy: a fire in Sydney’s Luna Park in 1979 that burnt down the titular ride, resulting in the death of six boys and a man.
A prolonged nerve-jangling sequence in the first episode weaves together witness accounts and dramatic recreation, resulting in one of the most electrifying scenes I have seen in any Australian documentary. Core to the show’s integrity is the excellent journalism of Caro Meldrum-Hanna and her team, who approach a dusty old story with newfound urgency.
3. Mr Inbetween
There’s an uneasy relationship between comedy and menace across all three seasons of Mr Inbetween, and more broadly in the work of its excellent director Nash Edgerton. Scott Ryan is unforgettably good as Ray Shoesmith, a hitman who keeps the kind of company you’d expect – including an amusingly dodgy best friend (Justin Rosniak) – but also has a cute young daughter (Chika Yasumura) and a pleasant girlfriend (Brooke Satchwell).
Rather than milking the “hitman with a heart of gold” cliche, Edgerton performs his signature combination, mixing uneasiness with humour. One moment Ray has arrived to rough up a goon; the next, he’s sitting down for a cuppa and a chinwag with the bloke’s mother.
I can hear the colours, man! I can see the sounds! Science meets art in this trippy and visually gobsmacking short-form YouTube series, which has an additional 28-minute compilation episode available on ABC iView. It turns a laboratory into a film set, creating amazing effects by mixing chemical compounds and accompanying them with an expansive electro soundtrack from the Presets’ Kim Moyes.
Separated into episodes devoted to different scientific fields (electricity, energy, matter and magnetism), director Josef Gatti embraces the magic of chemistry rather than the magic of motion pictures. Or, to look at it another way, he demonstrates that they can be one and the same, finding the ultimate effects in properties that bind together the known universe – elements that are, in the words of Phenomena’s narrator, “written in the patterns of nature”.
Nothing breaks realism quite like characters bursting into song – a risky concept for even experienced film-makers to execute. There is indeed an element of risk-taking in this wonderfully inventive and superbly staged drama (created by Kristen Dunphy and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt), which is not a musical per se but occasionally features singing and dancing, as well as taking on other tough challenges – including how to visually illustrate an earworm.
Nik (Rudi Dharmalingam), a psych nurse at a mental health facility, gets Come On Eileen stuck in his head, which sounds innocent enough but it in fact threatens to unravel the skein of his sanity. Very skilfully executed from go to whoa, with narrative loose ends and thematic callbacks that take the entire eight episodes to resolve, Wakefield is exquisite, deeply moving television.