Having had this week off work, I have been catching up with Out of the Blue, the Australian soap commissioned by the BBC when they lost Neighbours to Five. Soaps are not my regular viewing: too often they are crassly sensationalist, crassly lightweight, crassly stuffed with implausibly attractive teenage characters who are impossible to distinguish from one another, or plagued by cringe-worthy dialogue.
But the daily ongoing series isn’t necessarily bad as a format: the only problem seems to be that in order to attract an audience, it has to be made to the lowest common daytime TV denominator. When soaps try doing something unusual and thoughtful they can be rewarding: Jupiter Moon provides one such example (one of these days I’m going to give in and order all the DVD box sets); Out of the Blue provides another.
Typically a soap will provide a general open-ended question and then never answer it (and I’m regurgitating the course on TV drama I went on earlier this year here, so don’t give me any credit for the analysis): EastEnders asks “can the spirit of the Blitz survive in modern London?”; Coronation Street asks “are traditional working class communities still viable?”; Jupiter Moon asked “can you have a viable community in the hostile environment of space?” This is unlike serials, which pose questions and then answer them at the end: Life On Mars asked it very explicitly for instance – “am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?”
Out of the Blue takes an approach much more like a serial: it poses a defined question, rather than a general one about communities or what-have-you, and one that will ultimately be answered. The scenario is this: a group of friends reunite in the Sydney suburb where they grew up for the first time in ten years, when they were students; some have secrets and unfinished business from back then; others have moved on and are living their lives happily. Until, on the night of the reunion, one of them is murdered. So: who killed him?
Having watched the first few episodes on their broadcast in April, I was surprised on returning to the show five months later (albeit with breaks for the Olympics and other things) that the murder was still dominating the plot. Every episode gives us a bit more of a clue, and teases us with a new morsel of information, but it is clear that the murder is a long way off being solved. Meanwhile, the writers skilfully use it as a can-opener on the characters and their relationships, and the community more broadly.
It’s a successful recipe: there is genuine tension in all the episodes; the characters are largely in their late twenties and early thirties rather than vapid teens (though they are mostly still implausibly attractive), and accordingly have some depth; and overall the episodes are well-structured and written with some nice dialogue.
The BBC’s response to having a highly promising new show on its hands was of course to bump it from BBC1 to BBC2 almost immediately and then announce its cancellation at the end of the already-commissioned run of 130 episodes. Undeniably it has not won over the Neighbours audience, largely because they still have Neighbours, albeit on a different channel, and aren’t looking for a new Australian soap in their lives. But perhaps more importantly, it’s frankly a better and more sophisticated programme: dare I say it is too good for a daytime slot? The BBC should have shown a bit of faith and given it an early evening repeat or omnibus edition, to help it find an audience. As it was, they seem to have discarded it pretty much as soon as they took delivery of it: once again, a network treats a promising show disgracefully, and once again the BBC squanders licence-fee money on a show it now seems to wish it had never bothered with.
I suppose I should add a note of warning: the presentation of the show, particularly the title sequence, looks very stereotypically like “An Australian Soap” and made me want to hate it on first viewing. But this belies the quality of the writing and acting. If you’ve got the time, it’s not too late to get into it – not having seen the first episodes might be a problem, but I found it very easy to pick up the thread after missing four months’ worth. I might even have to start recording it and watching it when I get home from work – it’s one of the few decent dramas on TV at all at the moment.
There may yet be a happy ending: a Belgian broadcaster has commissioned more episodes, taking it through to 240; and it has also secured a broadcaster in Australia. Maybe the new episodes will find their way onto an obscure British digital channel at some point. In the meantime, I’m rather hoping and presuming that the murderer’s name will be revealed in episode 128 or thereabouts, so that’s something to look forward to.
EDITED TO ADD: my speculation about the murder plot running across all 130 episodes now looks like being wrong. Rumour has it the murderer will be revealed in the episode scheduled for broadcast on Monday September 8th – it has already aired in Ireland, apparently. So the murder-heavy episodes I have seen recently are not necessarily typical of all the episodes since the start; rather, they are part of the big build-up to the reveal. Can’t wait.