24 Hours in Emergency
While the hospital observational documentary genre has been running for many years – this episode is from the 15th season of 24 Hours in Emergency – 2020’s coronavirus crisis has only served to emphasise the valuable work of Britain’s National Health Service. It adds a level of resonance to the everyday activities of the Accident and Emergency department at the St George’s hospital in South London.
Beginning with a 14-year-old boy with a serious leg injury received after jumping off a swing, the capably shaped narrative mixes on-the-spot decisions and treatment with a framing commentary that takes in frontline staff, specialists, and family members. You get a sense of how minutes and hours in a hospital are actually turning points across lives, whether young or old.
The production’s technical skills allows for an unobtrusive but immersive presence – the sound mix has the hum of machinery, cries of pain, and worried conversations among family members. For all the struggles the NHS faces, it does invaluable work. “It makes you realise the common threads of humanity outweigh any differences,” one doctor says.
Music from the Homefront
Originally broadcast late in April, when social isolation had Australia clinging to its couches and the music industry was reeling from the loss of essential live gigs, Music from the Homefront was an Australian Live Aid for the lockdown era.
Organised by music impresario Michael Gudinski and Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes – with his son, David Campbell, hitting the right notes as a co-host – it took audiences into the homes of Australia’s leading artists, for a series of stripped-down and often sombre performances. This encore screening marks the release of the night via Gudinski’s Mushroom Group as an album, with all proceeds going to the invaluable music charity Support Act.
You can take your pick of highlights (and home décor), from Mark Seymour and James Reyne doing Throw Your Arms Around Me and Reckless in a garage to G Flip’s invigorating About You. It’s already a moment in time that’s passed, but the music endures, as does the notion that we really need an ongoing showcase of live Australian music on our television screens.
Where Are You Really From?
To open the third season of this lively social history series, host Michael Hing literally emerges from the sea and strides ashore, only to transform into his hosting persona. It’s a madcap anti-Clark Kent sequence – and not the only stylistic flourish in this episode – but it’s indicative of a show that uses a light touch to examine the sometimes seismic change in Australia’s multicultural identity.
Here Hing is visiting Inala in the south west suburbs of Brisbane, which is home to a thriving Vietnamese community that’s taken shape over the past 40 or so years. With a local guide offering tips and introductions, he interviews those who fled Vietnam after the end of the war in 1975 led to a humanitarian crisis, as well as the second and third generation descendants of those refugees who’ve grown up here.
Hing, who is 5th generation Chinese-Australian himself, teases out joyous anecdotes and proud beliefs. It’s a cheerfully optimistic reminder that each wave of migration to this country brings a welcome shot of industriousness, excellent culinary options (as the show itself emphasises), and an enduring measure of gratitude. Those who come here from other countries, especially as refugees, tend to actually see us in the best light. As one Inala local tells Hing: “You can’t really go wrong in Australia.”
Kalgoorlie memorabilia store owner and trader Nigel Quick swaps the dusty roads of Western Australia’s backblocks for the slightly less dusty roads of rural Victoria in this episode of his reality show. Every time a shed door opens in this series there’s a new surprise, and that’s certainly the case here as the host meets a motoring enthusiast who has built a replica of the V8 police interceptor from George Miller’s classic automotive action film Mad Max.
“Have a look at this,” marvels Quick, who brings a genuine level of bloke-next-door wonder to his travels, and it works to get the various collectors he visits to open up. There’s some minutiae revealed to what are specialised areas such as vintage garage display cases and engine oil packaging, as well as considerable pride. American versions of this genre place a premium on the monetary side – value, bidding, cutting deals. Quick’s Australian variant is thankfully more collegial and less overtly produced.
America’s Got Talent
The cracks in Seven’s programming roster mean that the American edition of this reality format staple is back in Australian prime-time. Endurance, if anything, has given this modern-day talent show a triumphal tone – just making it on-stage can change lives we’re told, and intercut preparation scenes suggest an audience looms with a minor deity as opposed to some celebrity judges. The panel itself features Simon Cowell – his acidic commentary parked to one side – with Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel, while Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Terry Crews serves as the jocular host. There’s a back story for every highlighted hopeful, as well as some hype work for new judges Vergara and Klum.
ABBA: Secrets of Their Greatest Hits
There’s a decent mix of analysis, appreciation, and archival material to this music documentary, which looks into three classic songs from ABBA’s iconic songbook: Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen, and The Winner Takes It All. Outside voices guide the narrative, with biographers and now ageing session musicians chipping in, as the circumstances of early 1970s Sweden and pop music’s changing landscape shaped the quartet’s savvy songwriting and interlocked relationships. It’s all a reminder that a classic pop song is a masterful act of distillation.
America In Colour
As Paul Simon sang, everything looks worse in black and white. The obvious corollary of which is that, clearly, everything looks better in colour and so it is with this series, which presents momentous events from the history of America in the early 20th century in vivid colour rather than the monochrome in which we’re so used to viewing such footage.
This episode deals with the Wild West: that mythic period of US history that was coming to an end in the face of remorseless progress at the dawn of the 1900s. The conflict between the old and the new makes for compelling doco subject matter. America emerges into a new century on the brink of something big, an embryonic superpower set to ascend in a century in which both human ingenuity and atrocity would reach new heights.
Whether the liberal-Hollywood narration is your cup of tea depends very much on your perspective, but it’s undoubtedly a treat for the eyes.
Love Island UK
What can you say about a show like Love Island UK? That it’s a modern-day morality tale? That it’s a cautionary fable about late capitalism and the fate of societies that invest an excess of civilisational capital in cults of celebrity? All of this and more is true of Love Island, a social experiment designed to test humans’ tolerance for nothingness. If you enjoy looking at attractive people wearing very little, you may get a kick out of this paragon of hollowness. If you enjoy shows with literally anything to offer apart from attractive people wearing very little, you may find it a bit lacking. But for fans of the grotesquely depressing, it’s tailor-made.
Nothing shines a light on historical wrongdoing like a beautifully mounted series that combines hard, brutal truth with a healthy dose of making stuff up. Operation Buffalo is a high-class production, well-written, superbly shot and supplying juicy roles for some of the best acting talent from here (the always-impeccable Ewen Leslie) and abroad (James Cromwell in a role quite a way removed from Farmer Hoggett).
There is much to be outraged about in the story of Maralinga, when the Menzies government opened its arms to embrace British nuclear tests, proving Australia’s loyalty to the motherland before its own people lasted well into the 1950s. In fact, whether this country has ever stopped bowing and scraping to its overseas overlords is a pertinent question still, and Operation Buffalo pushes it front of mind.
It’s just a bit of a shame the fascinating-cum-infuriating true story has to be draped in soap opera finery. Melodrama, gratuitous romance, and an insistence on shoehorning modern sensibilities into history keep getting in the way, making Operation Buffalo just a little bit less than it should’ve been.
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Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.