Since TV arrived in Melbourne in 1956, it’s fair to say it’s made a major impact. The last 60 years have seen Dame Edna become a megastar, the singing budgie Kylie Minogue fly into fame via Neighbours, and Chris Lilley forever change the way we say ‘ecstasy’ with his song ‘Naughty Girl’. So we thought we’d take a look back at the best TV shows made in Melbourne that AREN’T Neighbours. Because culturally, we have a whole lot more to offer than a weekday tour bus around Ramsay Street. Here are a few of our favourite Melbourne-based TV shows:
#1 Funky Squad
Do you remember this short-lived 1995 comedy series? It was a piss-take of 70s American cop shows like The Mod Squad, and it was amazing. Stix, Grant, Cassie and Poncho were hip undercover cops who wore the tightest denim flares you can possibly imagine and got hired out by a man called Da Chief to solve crimes. These crimes included things like young artists being murdered by the curators of art museums and a series of jewel thefts by a cat burglar.
Only seven episodes were ever produced, which makes them even more precious, and the final one culminates in an epic showdown at an abandoned fun fair. The actors all played their roles semi-straight even though the show was a spoof, and the ABC went so far as to insert real TV ads from the 70s when it was playing to maintain the ruse. Every chase scene and shoot-out involved plenty of conveniently placed cardboard boxes and rubbish bins, and it was mentioned at least once an episode that Poncho was mute because “You wouldn't say much either if you'd caught a bullet in the tongue!” Check out the intro here to be thrown back in time to that awesome theme song.
#2 The Secret Life of Us
A televised tribute to St Kilda, share-housing and being really, really full of angst, The Secret Life of Us was a tremendously popular late nineties/early noughties drama. It followed the lives of eight 20-something characters sharing apartments by the seaside and featured a classic case of URST (Unresolved Sexual Tension) between Alex (Claudia Karvan) and Evan (Samuel Johnson). People loved it because it dealt with the big-ticket emotional issues like sexuality and career while chucking in a good soapy dose of romance, drug-taking and bed-hopping for good measure. Also, how good did those apartments look? Everyone who watched it wanted to live there.
The actors were also terrific (hello, Deborah Mailman), and the show explored the intricacies of apartment living in a way that hadn’t really been done before. The show fizzled out after Claudia Karvan left, but the first few seasons still stand the test of time. Even better, it had a great Aussie soundtrack, with Motor Ace’s ‘Death Defy’ as the opening theme tune and lots of Crowded House and Paul Kelly. Relive Alex and Evan’s URST here.
#3 Ja’mie: Private School Girl
Australians first met Ja’mie (pronounced Jah-MAY) in Chris Lilley’s early mockumentary TV series, We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year when she was nominated for holding the national record for sponsoring 85 Sudanese children and doing the 40 Hour Famine every week to raise money. With zingers like “Two days a week without food keeps me looking hot”, Ja’mie stole the show and was brought back by Lilley for his 2007 series Summer Heights High. After it ended audiences still couldn’t get enough so she and her posse of mean-girl lieutenants were granted a full show of their own to document their senior year at the prestigious Hillford Heights Grammar School (actually Melbourne’s Brighton Secondary College). Ja’mie is incredible. She’s the clueless, hateful, self-centered Regina George of the Australian private school system, and while Ja’mie: Private School Girl is somewhat lacking in plot, it’s hilariously funny and horrifyingly accurate. When it aired, there was a landslide of commentary about whether Lilley’s satire was plainly offensive or offensively clever. But viewed purely for its exuberant crassness and sly social commentary, there’s no reason not to love it. Check out some of Ja’mie’s slickly-glossed sass here.
#4 Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
In this stylish ABC series, lady detective Phryne Fisher totes a pearl-handled pistol and is never seen without her lipstick in place. Set in 1920s Melbourne, it explores the city’s subcultures as a ‘between-the-wars’ crime drama. It also has a sharp feminist focus with episodes frequently highlighting women’s issues and struggles during that particular period, such as access to birth control and medical treatment.
In fact, as a feminist role model, you can’t really go wrong with Phryne. She lives happily alone, has many attractive lovers, runs her own business and dresses even better than James Bond. Plus, all her sleuthing and skulking around in the middle of the night is pretty gripping stuff, and she has a dagger-sharp sense of humour. The episodes are all based on the Phryne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood so you can read along while watching. Get a feel for it here.
#5 Kath & Kim
It would be hard to find an Australian who isn’t familiar with Kath “Look at moiye, ploise” Day-Knight and Kim “I’m not a housewife, I’m a hornbag” Craig, and their love for Westfield Fountain Gate. In fact, Kath & Kim is the most popular Australian television comedy ever produced. If you’ve never caught an episode, it’s a very noice, diff’nt, un-ewes-ual suburban satire set in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Fountain Lakes.
Born from a two-minute comedy sketch, it follows the lives of these two foxy morons as they try to attain spousal bliss and drink chardonnay. Kim’s second-best-friend, allergy-plagued sports enthusiast Sharon is played by none other than Magda Szubanski, and each half-hour episode is full of preposterous plotlines. A US version was produced and swiftly panned because frankly no one does tongue-in-cheek humour quite like Australians, and there was also a movie which isn’t really worth talking about. But you can watch the timeless intro sequence from the TV series right here on YouTube.
#6 Underbelly (Series 1)
Based on the legendary Melbourne gang wars that lasted almost a decade, this blood-drenched thirteen-part series had everyone hooked when it first aired in 2008. Each episode contained fictionalised reenactments of real-life events that were based on chapters in the true crime book Leadbelly by journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule. Because some of these events were under dispute, the Victorian Supreme Court put an injunction in place to ensure upcoming criminal trials were not unfair to the accused, which meant that episodes were edited.
In 2011, the injunction was partially lifted and the series was screened as Underbelly Uncut. It’s a slick, violent and sexually-charged saga that introduces key players in Melbourne’s criminal underworld, such as the self-styled ‘Black Prince of Lygon Street’ and Moran rival Tony Mokbel. Sure, it’s still banned from sale on DVD or Blu-ray in Victoria, but it’s got a ripper soundtrack that can be legally purchased here.
When season five of this much-loved relationship drama ended in 2014, there were widespread fears that it would not return for a sixth season, especially given all of the storylines were neatly tied up. But it did return in 2016 and Offspring fans breathed a collective sigh of relief that they could continue to follow the odd adventures of obstetrician Dr Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie) and her sister Billie (Kat Stewart). Set in Fitzroy, the show is chaotic but fun with only the occasional dash of melodrama and some very good acting.
It delivers love, sorrow, joy, heartbreak, paternity scandals, family dysfunction and love triangles, and plenty of glorious long shots of Melbourne’s inner north. Sure, Nina’s daydreams and surreal vignettes can get a bit irksome, but its’ perfectly timed deadpan humour makes Offspring both an enjoyable and smart choice for escapism. Spoiler alert: Madman Films put together 5 Seasons in 5 Minutes if you want to get right onto season six here.
Image Credit: HBO