What are the worst two words in the English language? Which two-word construction is more menacing, more terrifying and more upsetting than any other? Any reasonable person might conclude that it’s “Twilight marathon”. The more aesthetically inclined might say it’s “Comic Sans”. I have a friend who insists it’s “botched circumcision”.
But there are two words far more dangerous than these. The he-who-must-not-be-named of our little Antipodean corner of the globe, the “Macbeth” of the theatre that is our day-to-day existence: Australian drama.
Words that you can probably throw around freely now, given that Australian drama died on Sunday night with the premiere of Channel Ten’s long-shelved — or long-anticipated, if you’ve got a marketing background — “family” series Reef Doctors.
Reef Doctors opens with four-time Gold Logie winner Lisa McCune on a sleek, speeding white boat, net in hand. She’s trying to catch a sea snake. This is a very dramatic moment, and we know this because the music tells us so. Eventually she catches the snake, which is an extremely triumphant moment, and we know this because the music tells us so.
Reef Doctors is set on the fictional Hope Island, somewhere off the coast of northern Queensland, which is simultaneously far enough away from the mainland to cause significant transport and supply problems, and close enough that those problems disappear when the plot requires it. Hope Island is one of those heartbreakingly beautiful and idyllic places, something we know for sure because every scene change is punctuated by an establishing shot of some trees, a few crabs or a stretch of blue water.
McCune plays Dr Sam Stewart, a GP who runs the Hope Island Clinic — an impossibly well-lit medical practice with many windows that all look out onto a blank, nondescript whiteness which is definitely a tropical island and not a television studio. Dr Sam Stewart is a no-nonsense gal, and we know this because she says things like “He doesn’t listen. I should’ve prescribed a hearing aid for him as well!”, she doesn’t brush her hair, and she showers outside while a small green parrot watches her.
The Hope Island Clinic is populated by patients who sit quietly in the waiting room, stand at the reception desk, or walk in and out of the door. Treatment at the clinic is reserved for people participating in the main story strand of the episode, and even then only when Dr Sam Stewart and her no-nonsense sidekick, Nurse Practitioner Olivia Shaw (Tasneem Roc) aren’t busy videoconferencing with Professor Andrew Walsh (Matt Day), the head of Tropical Medicine at the mainland hospital, and Sam’s ex-husband.
We know that these people are medical professionals because they say things like “Your medication’s having an adverse effect!”, “Not until I can find a sponsor for a randomised controlled trial!”, and use words like “efficacy” in everyday conversation. We can tell that Nurse Practitioner Olivia Shaw is slightly less professional, though, because the actor playing her mispronounces basic medical terms like “debride”.
Today’s the day a new doctor arrives at the clinic; Dr Rick D’Alessandro (Richard Brancatisano), a too-cool-for-school fish out of water. We know this because he has brought golf clubs and a tennis racquet with him, and boat rides make him vomit comedically. And we know it’s comedic vomiting because, you guessed it: the music tells us so.
Dr Sam Stewart is a good doctor, something we know because Dr Rick D’Alessandro doesn’t know how to do anything until she explains it to him. Even when she’s at the bottom of the ocean — which is, incidentally, just as well-lit as the clinic — she’s a good doctor. We know this because she says things like “Give him a full medical examination!” She also makes jokes, and we know they’re definitely jokes because the music tells us so.
There’s a larger cast — Rohan Nicol as the guy who runs the charter boat and secretly loves Dr Sam Stewart, Susan Hoecke as the German medical student who wears a rainbow bikini and whose lines have all been ADRed, Chloe Bayliss as the kooky receptionist who we know is kooky because she has dreadlocks. The list goes on. None of the painfully white cast are particularly good or bad, and none of them manage to make the clunky, painful dialogue work.
As far as Channel Ten’s promotional materials and both the opening and closing credits are concerned, nobody created this show. It shows. The premise isn’t even original: the 2011 Shonda Rhimes-produced series Off the Map was also about a bunch of misfit doctors and nurses running a remote tropical medical clinic, but that one actually looked and sounded like a real television show. Procedural medical dramas are complicated beasts, but they usually all work the same way: there’s a patient — or patients — of the week, we get invested in their story, and we keep watching to find out what happens to them. Here, our patient of the week is a man with decompression sickness. We don’t know what happened to him, why it happened to him, and we’re given no particular reason to care if he lives or dies.
Jutta Goetze, co-creator of the ABC’s quaint and inoffensive Bed of Roses, wrote the first episode, a masterful creation which manages to completely eschew narrative tension, conflict and character development with a willfulness that not even the entire Packed to the Rafters writers room could have bested. This is television written by people who don’t seem to watch television.
Producer Jonathan Shiff is the king of children’s series television — his company has churned out a near-endless stream of international hits including Ocean Girl, Thunderstone and H20: Just Add Water. This is his first foray into television for grown-ups, and he’s massively out of his depth. Lisa McCune co-produces with him, and I can only imagine she’s done this whole thing on some kind of elaborate dare — it takes real conviction to headline something like this on the heels of Sea Patrol.
Reef Doctors airs at 6:30pm Sunday nights on Ten. Children’s series In the Night Garden also airs at 6:30pm Sunday nights on ABC2, which most viewers will find more compelling.