The new SBS six part mini-series The Circuit started last night and the comparison with the slicker, bigger budget Sea Patrol on Nine is instructive.

In a way The Circuit is like Sea Change years ago on the ABC: a mould-breaking program — and SBS should be congratulated for it. But it’s much closer to real life than Sea Change ever was. Certainly not escapist stuff for urban whites.

So it’s a shame that it averaged a mere 351,000 viewers in the tough timeslot of 9.30pm on a Sunday night. A nothing timeslot actually and hardly demonstrating full support from SBS management.

Here’s the set-up:

Drew Ellis (Aaron Pedersen) has taken a sabbatical from his beautiful wife and comfortable legal career to go bush.

Carrying the professional arrogance that middle class advantage buys, Drew ventures from the cloistered legal circles of the city of Perth to do a stint in the outback – a worthy addition to the CV of a lawyer seeking higher office.

Drew is charming, confident, capable, and now completely out of his depth. He finds himself in the chaotic and challenging world of the Kimberley Circuit Court that takes a magistrate and an entourage of court officers and lawyers on a regular, five-day 2,000 kilometre round-trip to dispense justice to the hot, dusty and remote communities of North Western Australia.

This is no easy trip, but the expectations on Drew are high, for despite his white upbringing and fine white wife, Drew Ellis is black.

Pedersen and Gary Sweet are stand-outs and more people should watch this fine program and its actors.

There is supposedly a problem with coarse language: rubbish. I think the program was given a M rating because the subject matter is too tough for ordinary white Australian TV viewers to cope with in a drama. You might even have to ask if the SBS lost their nerve by putting it into the 9.30pm Sunday night slot.

The indigenous characters are strong, even in small bit parts. It’s well made, very well shot and directed and after the first ep, it left me wanting more.

It’s also the kind of thing that would scare Nine, Ten, Seven and even the good-hearted at the ABC sh**less with the risks involved. For all the brutishness and crassness of the current regime running SBS (which will have increased its audience by the end of this year, compared to last year, despite what the luvvies at HQ in Artarmon in Sydney might want not to see), no other TV Network would have made The Circuit: not even Foxtel.

Beyond that, it makes the Howard Government’s intervention in the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory look like what it really is: the actions of a group of white men seeking to exploit Aboriginal life for their own white ends and conscience.

And that’s the difference between The Circuit and Sea Patrol.

Sea Patrol was made with the help and co-operation of the Navy: it has a ‘pat on the head’, from the Defence Department and the Prime Minister. Border security and all those wonderful ideas that make Mr Howard salivate.

The Circuit is not so approved and is the better for it. John Howard would feel uncomfortable with some of the storylines. No fly in and out photo ops here for a small white pollie trying to look trendy with a tight leather jacket.

Peter Fray

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