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.