Thursday, April 06, 2006

Frances Grant: Lost in the wilderness

Since the dust settled on the Commonwealth Games there's a vast gap in the schedules where the lucky country used to be. The parched and struggling The Alice, last seen wandering aimlessly in a desert slot on TV One, came on like the last gasp of the once fertile ground known as the cracker Aussie drama.

Even the tired old McLeod's Daughters is missing in action.

We Kiwis have always found the Aussie shows hot stuff. We watched the likes of the top-rating Blue Heelers and Water Rats till our eyes bubbled. We lapped up the quirky Ocker spirit of SeaChange, and agreed that The Grass is Always Greener.

Now the only Aussies in prime time are the stray Downunder characters on Lost, though that show at times seems oddly in tune with transtasman history.

Forget last night's recap with all its mutterings about fate and coincidence - did the passengers realise their Oceanic aircraft was actually a mumbo-jumbo jet? - and all that nonsense about having to push a button every 108 minutes to save the world.

The silly "project" is a red herring. Anyone who has sat patiently through all those character back-stories will realise that the island is actually a penal colony for television's more troubled character types: the doctor with a saviour complex, wanted murderer, incestuous step-siblings, heroin addict, unwed teenage mother, Iraqi torturer, Texan wide boy, fat guy and now, with the arrival of the rabid Ana-Lucia from the tail section, a bad-ass cop.

But now Ana-Lucia and Jack look set to start some twisted new dynamic, the benefits of new blood are obvious. Perhaps it would perk things up even more if a few wackos from other shows were transported to serve time on the Kafkaesque island.

I'd like to see the psychopathic pharmacist George from Desperate Housewives turn up to take charge of the medical stores, or Edie the blonde nympho arrive to sex things up a bit. Boston Legal's Alzheimer's victim Denny Crane would leave the show's resident Mr Enigma, John Locke, in the shade.

Lost might not have much rhyme or reason but it does encourage us to have faith that things that seem to have disappeared from the face of the Earth are still Out There.

Just unearthed from the time capsule is the ancient phenomenon known as Kiwi kids' drama. Maddigan's Quest was joined at the weekend by newcomer The Lost Children, a tale about a bunch of pioneer kids who survive a shipwreck and have to make their way through a country wracked by land wars.

After just one half-hour episode it's early days, but the kids' wildly fluctuating accents and their spruce appearance after supposedly being washed up on a wild foreign coast were distracting.

And must we have that eerie whistling soundtrack every time a Maori appears on the screen?

Unfortunately, the New Zealand children's drama seems to be suffering from a Rip Van Winkle effect. Perhaps it's that sci-fi and colonial themes were the staple of local kidult drama 30 years ago that makes them seem an odd step backwards, especially after the more contemporary subject matter of the lone Kiwi kidult drama of more recent times, the excellent Being Eve.

The acting, too, is stilted and seems to hark back to a more self-conscious era. Young Kiwis can act amazingly well - look no further than The Piano, Whale Rider and In My Father's Den - so why isn't this translating into television?

These are dangers that make you fear for the fate of the Aussie drama. The more time spent lost in the wilderness, the harder it is to get back up and going.

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