Life on its own doesn’t make a very good story, as anyone who’s ever watched a based-on-a-true-story Australian telemovie can attest. Life, without art to shape it, is just stuff that happens. But in the hands of a skilled storyteller, the tiniest things can have weight and meaning that far outweighs the impact of any explosion or gunshot. A few weeks ago I lamented the lack of good storytelling on Australian television, the product of an industry that places writers at the bottom of the food chain, and spends little money on developing them or their ideas.
Redfern Now is the exception that rips the rule off its hinges. Its first season was some of the finest small-screen storytelling this country has ever seen. Its second season, which premieres this week, soars even higher than the first. The brainchild of Sally Riley, head of ABC TV’s Indigenous Department, and the team at Rachel Perkins’s Blackfella Films, Redfern Now is set in the eponymous, notorious Redfern, the heart of Sydney’s Indigenous community.
The season opener, starring Kirk Page, Noni Hazlehurst and Deborah Mailman, starts with a missing Post-It note. Where it goes after that is impossible to discuss without revealing the twists and turns, but they’re subtle and powerful, and the performances are mesmerising.
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This isn’t genre television. It’s not a procedural. Redfern Now is essentially an anthology series, with each episode telling its own standalone story, though characters cross over and connect in unexpected ways between episodes and seasons. The writing is as good as anything on HBO or Showtime and there’s an undeniable force behind its quality.
“Not a single moment is forced or out of place. There are clear character arcs, and there’s perfectly strung, tightly woven narrative tension.”
UK screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, the mastermind behind Cracker, The Lake, The Street and Accused, was brought in by Riley as the story producer. He worked collaboratively with the show’s writers, breaking stories and shaping them. Leah Purcell, who appeared as Grace in season one, and wrote and directed an episode in season two, spoke to The Australian about McGovern’s guiding hand in the writers room:
“He brought expertise and reality. He didn’t care who we were, he smashed us. He fine tuned our stories … One guy threw up seventeen stories and he slammed them and said they were just circumstance. So story became a sacred word.”
Not a single moment is forced or out of place. There are clear character arcs, and there’s perfectly strung, tightly woven narrative tension. Everything that happens, happens for a reason. The catalyst for a story can be as simple as a phone call, or as big as a car accident, but the story is always elsewhere; it’s in the actions and reactions of the characters in its orbit. Where most US writers rooms will spend weeks —and even months — plotting a season of television before a single word of it is written, Australian writers rooms plow through the process in a fraction of that time. On Redfern Now, McGovern spent months with the writers before the first season, a process that was repeated for the second.
Anyone who’s ever taken a basic course in creative writing has heard the dictum: show, don’t tell. If you’ve written for an Australian television series, chances are you’ve heard it, rolled it around on your tongue a little and chosen to spit it out. Redfern Now is less about what people say and more about what they don’t say: silence is a device Australian screenwriters often forget. The kind of emotional shorthand that’s ubiquitous on The Good Wife or Enlightened is perfectly executed here. There’s a scene in the first episode where Peter (Kirk Page) is leaning a little too hard on the bottle. Where a lesser show would have his daughter say “Daddy, don’t you think you’ve had too much wine”, here all we see is Peter going to pour himself another glass, realising he’s already drunk the whole bottle before they’ve even finished their takeaway pizza, and opening another. Redfern Now is built out of these moments, each one just as powerful as the last.
Novelist Stephen King says:
“Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do — to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”
It’s a principle McGovern and the team of writers (Adrian Russell Wills wrote and directed the first episode) are acutely cognisant of. Cliches are dispensed with, and stereotypes are subverted. In the first season, the biggest racist we encountered was an elderly indigenous woman, not a white man. A $60,000 Centrelink fraud turned out to be an accidental oversight by a middle-class mother, not a deliberate manipulation by someone out to rort the system.
We tell stories not just to understand the world, but to accept that there are parts of it we’ll never understand. But in Redfern Now, we don’t just get a look at a world most of us will never see up close, we see ourselves reflected in it.
Redfern Now is written and directed by Indigenous Australians. Most of its cast are Indigenous Australians. These are immensely talented writers, directors and actors that belong on our screens every night, not just for six short, commissioned hours a year.
Redfern Now airs Thursday nights at 8:30pm on ABC1.
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