Wednesday 26 November 2008

Packed with clichés

'Packed to the Rafters' aired on Channel Seven in late 2008.
Well it had to happen. I had been reading for weeks what critics thought of Channel Seven’s drama series ‘Packed to the Rafters’ and increasingly been turned off by the suggestion the majority thought it was worth watching. What’s this a critic actually endorsing a show? And an Australian drama at that! So last night after dropping in on friends I was exposed to the heralded hour of television that follows the ups and downs of the Rafter family on a Tuesday night. ‘Groundbreaking television’ and ‘Australian drama is back!’ could’ve been some of the quotes from critics but they also may not have been since I just made them up – but the show I’d decided not to watch got its chance which coincided with its season finale. So what did I think? Are you ready to quote this critic’s critique? “Channel Seven has clearly raised the bar for Australian drama with their engaging and realistic spin on what life is like when a suburban couple are forced to reconnect with their grown up children and really really grown up grandfather when they all move back into the house due to circumstances that have changed their lives. Wow, imagine if any of the above was actually true? To be fair the premise of the show (which admittedly I’ve taken from ads on television and the odd review in the paper) is solid for a series but after my first viewing I’m afraid I just can’t endorse that fairytale critique above. I’d like to… I really would. Drama in Australia has never dug its deep claws into my television watching habits and that might be because there are some American dramas that set the bar so high (House MD, Boston Legal, Ed to name the rare few) the Australian equivalent simply cannot afford the production costs or quality of cast that these overseas shows have. But it might also be because I’ve never found Australian drama to be engaging on any level. Now that doesn’t mean my drama radar (‘dramadar’ from here on) is accurate for everyone but the fact remains for this watcher – no boats are being floated by Australian dramas. Is that because some people think Home and Away and Neighbours qualify as part of the drama genre? Maybe… however as I continue to break down the night of clichés in the Rafter household during the season finale – you might understand how close those soaps are to the product produced by Seven in ‘Packed to the Rafters’. Firstly enough with the clichéd storylines please!!! Last night the lead storyline surrounded the introduction of a yoga guru ‘Vishnu’ who was not only dating the Rafter’s daughter but was also ‘dating’ half the yoga class, whilst at the same time hitting on Mrs Rafter (Rebecca Gibney) in front of the daughter. Plus tied into his storyline was the fact he was a vegetarian who downed pork spare ribs like they ice cream and then the poor actor who played him was forced into the gratuitous naked butt scene through the family kitchen the morning after staying in the daughter’s bedroom. I’m sure if you looked close enough you could’ve seen the twenty cent piece clenched between the cheeks to keep his posture straight (old actors trick from ‘Are You Being Served’ I believe… how do I know that – don’t ask) and no I didn’t look close enough to validate my claim. No prizes for guessing the resolution to his storyline – he got caught cheating and the daughter woke up to the fact that mummy was right and the guy was a loser. The second driving plot line was the son and his wife facing life with him losing his job as a real estate agent for taking a bath with his missus in an open house he was supposed to be selling – and getting caught (wow didn’t see that coming!) And of course she feels like he is not telling her something (turns out I missed the bit where he lied to her and said he didn’t get fired) and goes to an old ‘friend’ to talk about how he’s not talking to her about things. That old chestnut… Then his new job as a call centre operator sees him sprung as he calls the mobile of the ‘friend’ to sell him wine and his wife answers the phone. So far from being inside the realms of possibility it’s sad, although had she and the friend been rung whilst having dinner together it might’ve felt a tad more realistic. Actually that reminds me of the last time I got a telemarketer (yep right around dinner) I initially couldn’t hear them properly and as I cottoned onto the fact they were calling from overseas about my phone service provider I simply played up the fact I couldn’t hear them and in about thirty seconds they hung up on me – glorious trick that worked wonders (thank you Billy Birmingham and Richie Benaud from ‘The Final Dig’). As it turned out the wife was only talking to the friend for support (probably the only plot line that didn’t go down the clichéd route) and by the end of the show the son has renewed confidence in himself (thanks to his mum knowing just what to say at the right time) and will face season two of the series ready for whatever challenges await. The other plot device was something about the dad (Erik Thomson) and his friend using stolen equipment to build something… can’t say I paid attention to that part so have no idea what they built. So that was the episode. It finished up season one and the ratings have been relatively strong apparently so there are obviously people out there without Foxtel or a DVD player who enjoy it. Just a couple of notes on the show: Michael Caton (the grandfather living in the house) was appallingly underused. His role in ‘The Castle’ may have me expecting more from him than is fair but he was barely heard from in the episode and it just seems criminal to underuse your best comedic asset in a show that desperately needed something to take the focus off the clichés! Rebecca Gibney (Mrs Rafter) has a presence on screen that the rest of the cast doesn’t but the whole inner monologue commentary thing where she’s spouting epiphanies just doesn’t fit in this show. It sounds incredibly disconnected from the tone of the show and detracts from the words that actually come out of her mouth following the voice-over. Erik Thomson (Mr Rafter) is forgettable as the man of the house. Was never an All Saints fan during his ‘heartthrob heyday’ so he just looks like the same wooden actor that did a short stint on Getaway a few years back.
Now I have no idea who the rest of the cast are – they all seem like newcomers and that is underlined by the fact I’m sure the two main guest stars in the episode (the ‘friend’ of the wife and Vishnu aka Barry) have been in mainstream advertisements before on television and were recognisable. In fact good old Vishnu was channelling Eric Bana for most of the episode – twenty cent piece clench and all.
The youngest son Nathan (Angus McLaren – thank you Google because the official Channel Seven site is borderline useless) is Jamie Oliver’s lovechild according to my friend.
His wife Sammy (Jessica McNamee) just pouts for an hour while searching for a dramatic one liner.
Eldest son Ben (Hugh Sheridan) had one scene eating ribs in the whole episode (I guess acting does have its perks).
Daughter Rachel (Jessica Marais) was seemingly riding an emotional rollercoaster in her relationship with Vishnu and had her moments but her delivery in the confrontational scene with the cheating Yoga teacher fell way short of convincing. Where there other characters? Didn’t notice them if there were. I’m not here saying that writing a drama is easy, in fact the respect I have for the writers of House MD and Boston Legal in particular who produce superb television each week is incredibly high, but I often wonder why the people that DO write for shows such as Packed to the Rafters settle for the easy route of cliché driven storylines. As I said before the overall idea of packing grown up children back into the house they grew up in with their mother and father and a grandparent has potential as a series. And clearly there’s enough in the mix (or a lack of any competition on free to air) to have the show rating well in a free to air television market under heavy assault by the internet and DVD releases – so that’s a feather in the cap for Channel Seven but if this show has designs on lasting past season two I can’t see how another dozen to two dozen episodes of plot lines we’ve all seen before can sustain it. So here’s the real critique that can be quoted til the cows come home or the show’s writers pluck up the courage to step out and write what they want to write rather than what they’ve seen before. “Packed to the Rafters may have struck ratings gold with its debut in 2008 but the show appears to lack the dramatic beating heart that good dramas live on. In theory having plot lines running wild over one hour can make a show entertaining but unless the undercurrent of the show offers some form of personal investment for the viewer – these Rafters will remain packed with clichés and not the heart it needs to survive.”