When Aussie drama is not what it seems

Never mind Big Brother. The demise of the $10M Canal Road, shafted to a lame 10:30pm timeslot after only two weeks, is a much bigger reality story.

Only three weeks ago Nine invited me to its whiz-bang launch at Canal Road’s CBD location. The red carpet was rolled out, the searchlight was spinning, the wine was flowing (I didn’t imbibe), the stars were smiling and both GTV boss Jeffrey Browne and drama exec Jo Horsburgh waxed lyrical about its glitzy new hope.

A few nameless people in the room confided to me that they weren’t exactly won over by the first few eps, concurring with my own feelings that the series was a bit of a mess. A couple of critics you’d normally spy at these events didn’t even show…

But such conversations were in hushed tones. You don’t offend your host, and I suspect we all felt a tad guilty about being so quick to dismiss a new Aussie drama. We champion such causes when they get it right, and audiences, as evidenced by the consistent figures for Underbelly, do flock to quality.

So what went wrong with Canal Road?

Technically this was an in-house production by Nine, a road that Seven has carved and perfected with Home and Away, All Saints and City Homicide (although it too struggled with HeadLand). In reality Nine actually enabled an independent producer, Susan Bower, to deliver a series under its watch. Nine provided the infrastructure (financing, distribution etc) for Bower to focus on what she knows best, producing. In this sense it is a different model to both Seven’s in-house or a production company like Southern Star, Fremantle etc.

In TV terms, Drama equals risk. It costs in the region of $450,000 an hour to produce and that’s assuming your script is even any good. Nine deliberately took risks with Canal Road’s form, toying with the genre in its early development. Was it a drama? Was it a thriller? Was it a medical show? Legal show? Stand alone episodes? Mini series? Yes, yes and yes –and I suspect therein lays the crux of the problem.

Nine described the series thus: ‘Canal Road is a mystery drama mini series set in a thriving medical-legal centre in the heart of Melbourne, where all is not what it seems.’

True enough. The audience couldn’t decide what the show was, and after only one week it dropped from 1.08m to 831,000 viewers. Clarity of genre, it seems, can be a rather wonderful thing. Following from Underbelly only magnified the creative expanse between the two.

Writing the entire principal cast as seemingly under the age of 35 certainly pushed credibility. It seemed like a cheap ploy to pepper the episodes with sex scenes. Oh, for a Tom Croydon or Gregory House to knock some sense into these kids who can barely keep their eye on the job.

In an ensemble drama point of view is crucial. Was this Spence McKay’s (Paul Leyden) story? If so, he was barely visible in the second episode. Could it be that his ongoing thread was really a device to win ‘miniseries’ funding?

‘Character likeability’ also seemed to lay on the writer’s room floor. I’m sure it was there somewhere, but amid the shooting up, the sex, gunfire and aerial shots of the Yarra it’s hard to remember where our empathies were supposed to lay. ‘Noir-ish’ Melbourne has never seemed so impersonal.

And the direction needed reining in. In the episode to air this week, there are voice-overs thoughts by the staff, gathered at a group meeting. Stylistically, it is out of step with the remaining tone.

But did Canal Road really deserve being moved after only two weeks? Yes and no. Had it stayed at 9:30pm it surely would have struggled. But I’m surprised Nine didn’t give this at least another week. The loss of faith arguably highlights a muddled marketing campaign and miscalculated timeslot to begin with. Still, how do you market something that is such a moving target?

There are eleven more eps of the drama to come, it will be interesting to see if Nine plays them out at 10:30 or bumps it a second time.

In Nine’s defence, the network is so top-heavy in locally produced drama this year it was probably bound to have one misfire. And I congratulate the network for actually daring to take risks with Canal Road. Playing safe is a far worse strategy.

Sadly for Aussie drama, the exercise that has been Canal Road is likely to live up to that slogan: Canal Road, where all is not what it seems.


  1. shaky cam gives a voyeuristic effect, like someone is actually there watching on and listening in to the action. Some people prefer this because it brings them closer in to the drama.

    Not everyone’s cup of tea of course.

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