But the success of Stateless, which debuted with a solid capital city audience of 441,000, putting it ahead of Ten’s Dancing with the Stars reboot, before it goes onto the ABC’s popular iView platform and then worldwide via Netflix’s acquisition of the show, shouldn’t just be appreciated on its own terms. By following the ABC’s 2018 outback procedural Mystery Road and 2019’s full-tilt political thriller Total Control, it gives the national broadcaster an impressive three-for-three in Australian drama.
That hat-trick is a crucial turnaround for an organisation that for large parts of the past decade appeared to be foundering when it came to scripted drama. With a backdrop of hamstrung resources, the ABC began the decade by aiming for a mix of the sexy and the serious with 2011’s Crownies, which followed young solicitors into both the courtroom and the bedroom, resulting in one female character telling her boyfriend, “we were playing solicitor and judge’s associate have sexy time”. Guilty on all counts.
Later the same year, the ABC would bounce back with The Slap (another Matchbox Pictures title), which richly adapted Christos Tsiolkas’ novel for a snapshot of our social fault-lines.
The series contained several pertinent lessons, starting with the pivot to limited-run series. At 22 episodes, Crownies was trying for a serial’s endurance.
Many of the network’s successes, including the latest trio, have all been six hour-long episodes. They’re tightly self-contained and thus viable for stars such as Blanchett, Judy Davis (Mystery Road) and Rachel Griffiths (Total Control).
Crownies did spawn an unexpected spin-off in Janet King, the Marta Dusseldorp-fronted legal thriller which explored corruption and malfeasance for three seasons between 2014 and 2017. It exemplifies one of the key lessons of the past decade for the ABC: serious intent is rewarded. Mystery Road, Total Control and Stateless all speak to contemporary Australia – they’re recognisable in ways both thrilling and compelling to anyone wanting to measure the tenor of the times.
It makes for a sharp contrast with commercial networks which have focused on family-based melodramas or more recently female-focused soaps with an instigating murder such as Ten’s Playing for Keeps or Nine’s Bad Mothers.
The ABC has previously tried for playful on its own terms – remember the legal eagles banter of 2017’s Newton’s Law with Claudia Karvan and Toby Schmitz? – but it has distinguished itself by challenging audiences instead of coddling them.
The execution of its latest shows has also been first-rate. If the ABC is making quality drama, it has to compete with Netflix and Stan, which have siphoned off audiences done with reality TV.
The direction of Rachel Perkins across Mystery Road and Total Control was exemplary, with Emma Freeman also excelling behind the camera on Stateless, while Deborah Mailman has created an entire body of work on the ABC that’s headlined by Total Control but also includes the timely genre allegory, Cleverman.
It’s noticeable how many of the ABC’s diverse goals are satisfied when it makes good dramas. And it’s never less than necessary. If it doesn’t get local drama right, it is left hamstrung and loyal free-to-air viewers can be deprived, especially at a time when some commercial broadcasters, looking for balance sheet relief, are advocating to reduce their local content quotas.
A country that can’t recognise itself on screen, flaws and all, is a lesser one. No run of fine shows is permanent, but the ABC deserves praise for this winning streak.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.