Australia’s best TV drama, ‘Offspring’
To be genuinely unpleasant takes some work, so it’s best to start quite young. I got in early. It was the early 1980s and I was still in school when Molly from popular night-time soap A Country Practice perished of a TV disease with symptoms that included dreadful three-point lighting and heavy make-up. My sister and mother were devastated before, during, and after the heavily promoted death. So, apparently, were the nation’s key advertising demographics. I laughed and called my family saps. Molly wasn’t real, the rustic town in which she lived was nothing close to real, and to shed real tears for such a mass, manufactured moment seemed to me an unnecessary labour.
Almost 30 years later, Dr Patrick Reid died another fictional death in another fictional hospital. I laughed and called my devastated friend Eleanor a sap. I had viewed Ten’s Offspring as barely and irascibly as I had A Country Practice, and noted only the unusual quality of its wardrobe. “Did Asher Keddie wear those vintage Gucci boots to the funeral?” I had asked Eleanor about the demise that dominated Australian media headlines. She didn’t speak to me for months. I have recently apologised to her, thanks to Netflix, surely the world’s most intimate app.
As season six, possibly the last, concluded on Ten last month, Netflix added the first five seasons to its library. Because there was nothing else on that didn’t promise superheroes, wormholes or paranoid academics from third-tier universities who were worried about capitalism but never certain why, I watched it. I tell you this story in case you, like me, take pride in being an arsehole. People said Offspring was good and clever and very moving because it really was.
Of course, people are hardly to be trusted. They said the same thing about local dramedies, Packed to the Rafters and Winners & Losers. But in these cases, people were wrong. Such programs are gratifying only in the way that a premium soap such as Sex and the City is. Their conditional celebration of womanhood serves, along with the white wine we girls drink while watching, to eclipse their narrative dawdling. Their sassy dialogue and neologisms send, along with the texts we girls mash out while watching, a message that they are saying nothing much at all. But for those few thousand Australians who do not already know it: Offspring was something rare, and deserves to be remembered alongside a work such as The Slap, rather than the good, if rudderless, The Secret Life of Us.
Actually, there is no good local production against which to compare Offspring, a show, although largely set in a hospital ward, that is not quite a procedural and, although reportedly tied to the vision of its creators, not quite a boxed set. Its loose but not limitless structure is more like Six Feet Under, but with new life instead of recent death providing weekly thematic fuel. And its cast’s hub is not a depressed man, but a truly anxious woman. If you instilled in Six Feet Under’s Nate some unhealthy professional ambition and gave him an outsize scarf and recurring Ally McBeal-style visions, you’d get pretty close to re-creating Australia’s sweetheart. Whom everyone, apart from unpleasant people like me, had long known to be Keddie’s Dr Nina Proudman.
Keddie deserves all the approbation, wide culottes and questionable tributes in the Archibald she has received. In giving this actually, and not adorably, crazed obstetrician life, she has also given her largely female audience an exceptional gift. Save for her wardrobe, the doctor provides neither spur nor caution. When I try to think of other female TV leads who remain likeable while inspiring no sort of moral direction at all, I come up with Marge Simpson, Morticia Addams and, perhaps at a pinch, Mindy Kaling.
Women who do not move us to judgement, good or bad, are very unusual. But Offspring had two of them. That marvellous stage actor Kat Stewart, also known for her velour turn as a gangland Lady Macbeth in Underbelly, gives us another great girl we don’t have to crow about.
There is a moment in season three when Stewart’s Billie Proudman is tortured not just by standard girlfriend jealousy but professional jealousy of her newly successful musician husband, Mick, played with quiet precision by Eddie Perfect. She is overwhelmed by the ease with which he sings on TV and when this phantom Mick is done, she looks into a mirror and tries to imitate his performance. Singing badly well is a difficult thing for an actor to nail. In a comedy, such as Florence Foster Jenkins, the task is best entrusted to a Meryl Streep. In a drama, such as Magnolia, give the hard work of choral pathos to a William H. Macy. Give it to Kat Stewart and, apparently, you can have light and shade at once. She is vulnerable, but hard as her shellac manicure. She is ridiculous, but hardly to be ridiculed.
I don’t want to be like these women, but I do rather fancy the idea of friendship with them, at least for long enough to try on their clothes. Eleanor, who has a Vogue subscription, agrees that the styling for the Proudman sisters is almost as virtuosic as that seen on Carrie Bradshaw and friends.
Designers Michael Chisholm and Zed Dragojlovich are not, like Sex and the City’s wardrobe visionary Patricia Field, in the business of leading fashion, but they perform an exemplary job of following a writer’s cue. Billie wears mass prestige labels, often in a size too large so she appears as though she’s rejecting the aspiration she just bought. Nina is swathed in bespoke and ready-to-wear vintage pieces and 500 neck ornaments and appears as though she is being tortured by beauty. To paraphrase Coco Chanel: Dress like a House Husbands cast member, they’ll remember the dress; dress like a neurotic doctor at St Francis, they’ll remember Nina Proudman.
In short, before Offspring, apt styling for female Australian leads had reached its apogee with Prisoner. It’s very nice to see a visual medium so seriously visual.
It was also nice to see one of the show’s creators quit while she was still ahead – or it would have been if I’d been paying attention this time last year. Debra Oswald, novelist, playwright and alumna of The Secret Life of Us, announced in September 2015 that she had concluded her stint at Offspring with the finale for season five. It was a pretty fine coda: all Proudmans were paired or happily single; dead Patrick looked on with approval, one of a very few acceptable ghosts in TV history; and, in a wonderful moment of chaos, 47 babies were born in Nina’s ward, giving the appearance of a neonatal Walking Dead.
Oswald and key writer Michael Lucas left when they felt that it was time, and they took their matchless sense of timing with them. These past months, Offspring looked as good as ever it did, which is to say better than everything on Australian TV that wasn’t produced by the team of Imogen Banks and John Edwards. But season six, remnants of which stay available for view on the network app Tenplay, lost its rhythm, if not its beauty.
It also misplaced its singular ability not to moralise to women. In season six, Nina and her many fans are forced to endure the “consequences” of a one-night stand. The doctor was no longer our screwball pal wont to bite off more penis than she could chew, but an object for our injunctions. Actually, last-season Offspring generally misplaced its ability not to moralise.
Where Winners & Losers did “social issues” and “diversity” with a flourish, Offspring enacted such things so they appeared, as they are, everyday. Where Packed to the Rafters did death As Seen on TV, Offspring did it in a way so suggestive of life I cried when I saw it and cried again when I apologised to Eleanor, my mother and my sister.
Patrick’s death is abrupt and quiet. Nina’s mourning is irregular. There is – save for actor Matthew Le Nevez’s Hollywood ascendancy – no reason for it, no comfort it can ever deliver. Death is dumb and ugly and occurs in tiny spaces. No one learns or becomes more beautiful, which is not at all the way I remember Molly’s end in A Country Practice. I swear, her heaving bosom grew by three inches. The last time we see Patrick’s bare chest, we know it will soon be harvested of its organs.
The loss of Offspring, which may yet return to us for another diminished season, is a pity for fans, as it must be for the local screen industry. But it was made, and all of us retain the memory of what good television looks like. And even if we just see hints of it again in Billie’s statement jewellery or Nina’s anxiety attacks, we can still send sappy white wine text messages to our mothers, our sisters and our Eleanors.
VARIOUS Melbourne International Arts Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, October 6-23
VARIOUS Burnie Shines
Venues throughout Burnie, until October 31
THEATRE Out of the Ordinary
The Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide, October 4-15
COMEDY Dragon Friends
Giant Dwarf, Redfern, October 5
SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, until October 8
MULTIMEDIA This Is Not Art Festival
Venues throughout Newcastle, until October 2
Palais Theatre, Melbourne, until October 1
VISUAL ART Cindy Sherman
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until October 3
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Doing us Proudman". Subscribe here.