2014 columns

Why Australian drama should be more political

by Stephanie Van Schilt , April 24, 20141 Comment

At Home with Julia


After binging on House of Cards season two and concluding season three of Scandal, I’ve finally taken up with Borgen. I’m only a few episodes into the highly acclaimed Danish political drama but already, as with The West Wing long before it, I’m totally hooked.

Borgen follows the first (fictional) female Prime Minister of Denmark (played by charismatic Sidse Babbett Kudsen). Compared to the ludicrous depths of House of Cards, the melodramatic heights of Scandal, or the liberal porn that was The West Wing, it offers a far more grounded approach to political drama.

This doesn’t mean Borgen is any less thrilling or any more worthy of viewership. The comparative range of each of these shows demonstrates the scope of possibility for political drama on television. Add the likes of the original BBC version of House of Cards, and you have a collection of acclaimed TV shows which demonstrate the different ways various political systems and cultures can be presented in a fictionalised form.

Which leads me to contemplate: where are all the good Aus Pol dramas?

Given our tendency toward self-deprecation, it’s not surprising that Australians produce far more political satires than we do dramas. In 2011, the poorly executed and inconsequential At Home With Julia was never going to be a match for the likes of HBO’s Veep or BBC’s The Thick of It. Granted, the latter shows engage with expansive mythologies surrounding Washington DC and the British parliament, but they also present intelligent, humorous takes on national governance via a series of well-crafted, panicked and totally fictitious spin-doctors, advisers, leaders and media. Comparatively, At Home With Julia presented a fictionalised version of a real leader in a domestic setting. It was more simplistic, inward-looking farce than actual commentary.

Thankfully, Shaun Micallef has continued to fight the good fight over the years as our very own Stephen Colbert-lite, most recently with his sketch/panel comedy show Mad As Hell, now in its third season. Likewise, the influential Working Dog crew produced two amusing seasons of their Canberra-based parody The Hollowmen in 2008, and since last year, The Roast has provided daily doses of interstitial-sized satire on the ABC. So, there are some Australian shows in this field – but not a lot.

Essentially, when stepping away from (often awkward) tongue-in-cheek satire, Australian content is skewed toward nostalgia-driven biopics or miniseries that – on one big night or over several consecutive Sundays – tend to humanise and even valorise political leaders in hindsight. These are relatively high-concept vehicles, often with big name actors playing notable figures. The central performances tend to outshine any political commentary – think Richard Roxburgh as Hawke (2010) or the recently announced Julia Gillard project in which Rachel Griffiths will play our first female PM. Due to the restrictions of the form, these projects lack the scope offered by serialised drama and are few and far between.

Last year Southern Star revealed the details of a new show, Party Tricks, starring golden girl Asher Keddie as Kate Ballard, a fictionalised politician committed to her campaign. According to producer Imogen Banks, this six-part drama series to be screened later this year will spotlight ‘politics, power and sex’. Just how these elements will be framed is yet to be seen, particularly given the casting of Keddie, best known for her beloved role as whimsical Nina in Offspring. Either way, this miniseries serves to highlight a gap in the Australian television market that it alone cannot fill.

In conversation with House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs, Borgen writer Adam Price noted that he intended his show to ‘stir an interest in politics’. One could say he has succeeded given that, like The West Wing’s prophetic storyline based on the rise of Barack Obama before it took place, Borgen pre-empted the election of Denmark’s first female Minister of State.

Regardless of whether it is life imitating art or art imitating life, the current Australian political climate is ripe for social commentary via culture. Deriving stories from our national headlines would offer a wealth of unmined opportunities – whether depicting fictionalised worlds in order to sadistically contemplate Machiavellian horrors, or envisioning aspirational political systems and exploring utopian dreams. When Olivia Pope’s love of a fine wine is rivalled by a fallen Premier’s own vino-soaked scandal, and former ministers are confused with fictional psychopaths, Australian television has some seriously fertile political ground to draw on.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.

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  • Stephen Turner

    Generally we don’t do idealistic drama, we do cynical and angry, so that would seem to preclude us doing our own “West Wing”. That said, our drama could be much more political — even various common crime dramas and thrillers in the US and UK tend to be far more political (at times) than anything we make here. Interesting to see a few new works on the horizon here.


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