2014 columns, Television

Idle hands and Devil’s Playground: Going to the movies to watch TV

by Stephanie Van Schilt , September 4, 2014Leave a comment

DP

I recently went to the movies to watch TV. I bid a reluctant farewell to the comforts of my couch and heater and ventured into the frosty evening in search of Devil’s Playground.

This ambitious new project from local production house Matchbox Pictures was screening as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Big Scene, Small Screen program strand. A televisual sequel of sorts to Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, Devil’s Playground has a longstanding relationship with film that extends well beyond MIFF. Almost four decades after the original film, actor Simon Burke reprises to the role of Tom Allen for the six-part series, returning to the original movie’s themes of child abuse and the Catholic Church. Having formerly performed the role as a child actor, this is clearly a passion project for Burke, and speaks to the lasting potency and relevance of Schepisi’s semi-autobiographical movie.

Now an adult – more specifically, a psychiatrist, father and widower – Tom is a devout churchgoer battling personal demons. After a local boy (and family friend) is reported missing, Tom delves into the investigation motivated by his personal interest. Simultaneously, he’s recruited as the resident therapist of the Catholic clergy.

Set in the 80s, the new version of Devil’s Playground is part period piece, part mystery and part social commentary. Due to air on Foxtel in early September, the first two episodes of Devil’s Playground were directed by Rachel Ward and screened back to back in the cinema, joined together by a seamless segue. The screening ran to roughly 90-minutes, the duration commonly described as the average film length (in reality, feature films often run between 70 and 210 minutes – with the exception of the latest seventeen hour-long Trans4ormers instalment).

Comparisons are consistently drawn between the current “golden age” of television and other more critically and historically esteemed forms, with pundits regularly declaring that television series are the modern equivalent to novels or films. While the foundation of this argument has some merit – the rise in televisual quality, serialised experimentation and longevity is significant – it fails to acknowledge that television is a distinct art form in its own right.

Accordingly, it’s difficult to determine how best to approach the first two episodes of a television program which is beamed through a projector and onto a cinema screen as part of a film festival. Do I review it as I would a film?

But that doesn’t feel right. From budget to development processes, from performance to narrative structure, television production differs markedly from film. Firstly, the beats aren’t the nearly same. Watching two episodes melded into one, the scripted tension is developed in an attempt to draw in potential continuing viewers, not to provide any resolution. It’s unlikely that any Big Scene, Small Screen attendees exiting the cinema revelled about the crazy-ass climax or the twist ending. This programming is about giving potential audiences a taster.

I’ve previously discussed the difficulties of judging TV on pilot episodes, however these initial episodes of Devil’s Playground are a uniquely contained case. In saying that, this screening format isn’t really that unique – the same episodes also played at the Sydney Film Festival this year. More and more local and international film festivals are including TV shows as part of their programming: Top of the Lake featured at Sundance in 2013, and this year’s SXSW festival incorporated an “Episodic” section which premiered six programs, including Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley.

So how did Devil’s Playground – something intended for the small screen – work when viewed on the big screen? Australian audiences tend to be either too lenient or too cynical when discussing locally produced film and television; in the case of Devil’s Playground however, I felt truly ambivalent. It’s not a wholly bad show, but it doesn’t have the hallmarks of an exceptional one either. These episodes raised some interesting discussions around the show’s structure and the pertinence of its themes, but like much Australian drama the quality was inconsistent.

Big names like Toni Collette and Jack Thompson appeared comfortable, as they do in most roles whether in film or TV, but Don Hany’s Bishop Quaid is an overinflated personality portrayed in an overinflated way. The period setting was alternately forced (framed shots of 80s cigarette packages, old Australian banknotes gleefully exchanging hands, overly dowdy jumpers) and subtle (Toni Collette’s hair and rubber gloves).

It may seem unfair to call these episodes visually dull when I’m inevitably comparing Devil’s Playground to the wealth of cinematographic wonder audiences encountered during MIFF, but this shortcoming was as blatant as the production was cheap and bland. What could go unnoticed on a television (or computer or tablet) screen, here screams cheap and lacklustre – this was particularly noticeable during the poorly framed and executed university AIDS protest scene.

Inevitably, comparisons abound with Top of the Lake, which screened as part of the Big Scene, Small Screen program at last year’s MIFF: Devil’s Playground opens on a body of water, there’s the key trope of a missing child, even the opening credits and haunting piano tune harken to Jane Campion’s celebrated co-production. While Devil’s Playground lacks the shine or visual sophistication of Campion’s work, it does muster sufficient narrative intrigue to invite further viewing. By the end of this two-in-one episode alone, antagonists are inverted and expectations quashed. There are a number of narrative threads – including the case of the missing boy and the politics of the clerical hierarchy– which twist and turn to provide an intriguing taste of what’s to come.

I’ll also tune in to see how Collette’s character – parliamentary member Margaret Wallace – develops, particularly in the light of the current Royal Commission. It will be interesting to see whether Devil’s Playground can move beyond being simply a period show based on a film from the past, to depict a revisionist spin on our present and future.

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

ACO logo




marilyn-ulysses

Reading Marilyn reading Ulysses: when celebrities are photographed with books

In 1955, photographer Eve Arnold snapped a now-iconic image of American actress Marilyn Monroe, in her bathers on a Long Island playground, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the sixty years since, the photo has prompted continual suspicion in those who see literature and celebrity as mutually exclusive – was she really reading it? Read more »

capote-dog

The Outsiders: The early stories of Truman Capote

The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
SARA GILBERT

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »

SPEAR_0014_Edward_Mulvihill copy 2

Lauren Carroll Harris

Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the possibility of an art cinema in Australia. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

Bowie - The Image  1

The Art of Immortality: David Bowie and The Image

With the news this week of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

PLM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Sydney - January 20, 2016: This Is How We Die perfomed during the 2016 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Impossible Futures: Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die

These two shows ask: how hard do we need to listen? In each, minutiae can be discarded, at least in slivers of time. Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die each allow your brain to detach for a moment: to spin off into the different worlds they create, before returning once again, as best you can, to the work at hand. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »

_85072354_hamlet3-pa

Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »