The 60 Greatest Australian TV Shows Of All Time

Sixty years ago, Bruce Gyngell first welcomed Australia to commercial television Words by Junkee

By Junkee, 11/7/2016

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Sixty years ago, an executive named Bruce Gyngell announced in Sydney, “Good evening and welcome to television“. With one sentence, he signalled the birth of mainstream, commercial TV in Australia.

It’s mental to think that Australia has only really had TV for 60 years – and even more daunting to think how much it has evolved since. Because of this, we decided to set ourselves an incredibly self-destructive task: narrow down the 60 greatest and most influential Australian shows since Bruce and his bow-tie welcomed us to the new frontier in 1956.

The criteria we set ourselves was strict. To be included in the list, a show had to have (for better or worse) dominated the zeitgeist at some point, be the best example of its genre, have impacted the programs that came after it and to have exhibited a special ‘Australianness’ that uniquely spoke to audiences in a way that shows from the U.S. or U.K. never could. This week we’ll also be running pieces everyday that focus on specific moments in Australian TV history.

We hope that this lists reminds you of forgotten gems, or gives you a new show to add to your streaming queue. You’ll probably disagree with a bunch of these choices, some of them might even embarrass you, but it’s hard to deny their importance. Well, except for Who Dares Wins. We just kind of like that one.

60. Popstars (2000 – 2004)

In the year 2000, talent shows about wannabe musical sensations were still a revolutionary and novel concept. This is why Popstars, a pre-Australian Idol reality TV show about moulding the perfect girl group, was inexplicably able to attract over two million viewers per episode. Season one was filled with drama and intrigue: contestants stealing from other contestants! Alleged affairs with producers! So many latex halter tops!

The finished product was Bardot, a five-piece who went on to break ARIA records. Season two’s Scandal’Us were less successful, but then they did have a pretty obtuse name. Popstars gave us one of our first tastes of ‘all access’ TV that was much glitzier than Australia’s first real reality TV show, Sylvania Waters.

-Sinead Stubbins

59. Mr. Squiggle (1959 – 1999)

Another one of those kids’ shows with a premise you didn’t want to interrogate too much: a man from the moon (if a three-foot-tall lovechild of Krusty the Clown and a Christmas elf with a telescopic neck could be called a man) who visited Earth to hang out with a human woman, an extremely short-tempered blackboard, a steam shovel with a thing for dad jokes, and a snail with a suitcase instead of a shell, and use his pencil nose to turn children’s scribblings into recognisable sketches. Norman Hetherington, who created the show in 1959, would draw with the eponymous puppet, controlling him from above — hence his “Upside down! Upside down!” catchphrase as the image was flipped and revealed.

The idea of getting one of your squiggles on the show was an honour on par with your school getting to go on A*Mazing, and apart from the sheer delight of the revealed illustration (an awful lot of which were animals holding umbrellas) there was a nice little lesson: a little teamwork can turn the most nondescript scraps of inspiration into something lovely.

-Caitlin Welsh

58. A*mazing (1994 – 1998)

A*Mazing was on television for four years (’94 to ’98 respectively) and those were four years that I spent faithfully glued to my screen after school. It was a show that had it all; two competing teams of kids in matching overalls, elbow pads and helmets, a giant floor-mounted QWERTY keyboard that was stepped on to form words, a dubious pretence of educational value, an elaborate maze/obstacle course hybrid full of novelty oversized keys and letters and the epic crescendo of a Super Nintendo face off, which is still – to this day – how how I believe all disputes should be settled. It was, for lack of a better word, absolutely a(*)mazing. I’m still bitter that my school was never approached.

-Taryn Stenvei

57. Summer Heights High (2007)

Anyone who attended school (or was close enough to a school to see ‘8==D tation’ written everywhere) in the year 2007 knows exactly how influential this show was. Three years after We Can Be Heroes, Chris Lilley developed a world so vivid and popular in its depiction of daggy Australian high school that two of its characters had full-blown spin-offs.

In retrospect, those shows could have been better picked and time has treated both them and the original terribly. J’amie: Private School Girl bombed in the US with some critics calling it “transphobic drag” and Jonah From Tonga was denounced as “modern-day brownface” which, yep, is absolutely fair. Although it was popular at the time and a massive ratings success, now it’s obvious that many aspects of the show were very tone deaf.

-Meg Watson

56. Who Dares Wins (1996 – 1998)

For a brief, glorious moment in the late ’90s, Mike Whitney was the undisputed king of after-school telly. Gladiator; Sydney Weekender; everything the man touched turned to gold. But the jewel in the Mike Whitney crown was Who Dares Wins, the show encouraging regular Aussies punters to do extremely stupid and genuinely dangerous things for money.

Watching Bev from Moonee Ponds tightrope walk between two hot air balloons or day shoppers at Westfield Miranda stick their hands into a bucket of cockroaches was a mandatory afternoon activity, while the infamous Maxibon Challenge became a rite of passage for foolhardy high school kids the nation over. While Mike Whitney now leads a quiet life, at least according to his suspiciously detailed Wikipedia page, his place in Australian televisual history is assured.

-Alex McKinnon

55. Hey Hey, It’s Saturday (1971 – 1999)

Here’s the thing: Hey Hey has not aged well. We all know this to be true, but unfortunately it took a very embarrassing run of reunion shows to prove that some things are better left in the past (well, blackface was still bad 20 years ago, so there’s really no excuse). Rather than just leave it out, it’s important to acknowledge Hey Hey‘s shortcomings, because for almost 30 years it was staple television.

This show belongs to a specific time and place, in which a puppet called Dickie Knee and a man dressed up as a duck were adequate primetime entertainment, in which there was a long-running segment of playing videos that viewers had sent in of movie mistakes and, for some reason, Molly Meldrum giving a verbal album review that even people on the show didn’t care about. Gong him, Red!

-Sinead Stubbins

54. Rockwiz (2005 – Present)

There are two types of people in this world: RockWiz people and Spicks & Specks people. While the latter was a sweeter import of the anarchic Never Mind The Buzzcocks, RockWiz feels as Australian as a pub quiz at the local — which is exactly what it is. Filmed at St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel and hosted by the immortal SB-godd-S Julia Zemiro, RockWiz has the sticky-carpeted, electric immediacy of a gig — a vibe helped along by a live band, a vaguely arbitrary scoring system and a parade of sheepishly beaming, unfamous music nerds pulled up from the audience to compete alongside rock stars local and international. RockWiz is the Stones of music trivia shows: well-established, still going strong, and no substitutes will be accepted.

-Caitlin Welsh

53.  The Time Of Our Lives (2013 – 2014)

What happens when the characters in The Secret Life Of Us grow up and tastefully renovate an inner-city terrace? In its two short seasons before being cruelly axed, Judi McCrossin’s The Time Of Our Lives presented a warts-and-all portrayal of flawed thirtysomethings who were oddly relatable despite their privilege. With a great ensemble cast (Claudia Karvan, Shane Jacobson, Justine Clarke) and suburban Melbourne as its backdrop, The Time Of Our Lives was at its core, a show about families; how they keep us together, but can also rip us apart.

-Darren Levin

52. Skippy The Bush Kangaroo (1968 – 1970)

Skippy is so inescapable that every Australian knows the premise, regardless of whether they’ve caught an episode or not. Skippy was a kangaroo who lived in Waratah National Park, befriended a boy called Sonny and sometimes played cricket with him. It wasn’t just a big deal in Australia; Skippy was one of our most heavily exported programs, even being shown in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This show was probably responsible for many children thinking that kangaroos were much friendlier than they actually are.

-Sinead Stubbins

51. The Family Law (2016 – Present)

Benjamin Law’s frank and intensely relatable writing about life, family, friendship, and sex (he co-wrote a long-running column on the latter with his legendary mum Jenny) has been loved by many Australians for close to a decade. This year saw him finally translate that to the screen. The Family Law, based on his 2010 memoir of the same name, is a tender and often hilarious family drama rooted in his own experience growing up in suburban Queensland.

Though it explores common experiences like puberty and divorce, it’s made all the more interesting through the lens of Chinese-Australian migrants. Australia has a long history of migrant storytelling in film, but these stories are vastly underrepresented on TV.

-Meg Watson

50. The Glass House (2001 – 2006)

Once upon a time, two relatively unknown comedians called Corinne Grant and Dave Hughes joined then-triple j breakfast host Wil Anderson, on a weekly panel show primarily concerned with ripping the Howard government to shreds.

The Glass House was the ABC at its finest: unconcerned with appearing particularly likeable, never holding back in skewering big business and big government and plonking Georgie Parker or Pinky Beecroft on a panel and forcing them to discuss politics (it was also the only show where you could find Jimmy Barnes and Molly Meldrum discussing orgasms, for better or worse). When The Glass House was axed, there were rumours that it was as a result of investigations into the ABC’s bias — which makes it kind of punk, in retrospect.

-Sinead Stubbins

49. Rove Live (1999 – 2009)

There’s a moment on Rove Live in 1999 where actor Pia Miranda, who’d been preparing to film the pub rock movie Garage Days, regales her hosts with a story about an annoying punter at a show. “There was this guy in the front row and he kept going like this–” she says, holding her index and forefinger in the shape of a V in front of her mouth and furiously wiggling her tongue. “What’s that about?”

What follows is the horrified expression of a woman who has only now realised she just made the universal gesture for cunnilingus on live television. If this was happening on The Late Show or Jimmy Kimmel, you could be sure it was a story devised by publicists and pre-rehearsed before the show. But in the freewheeling early days of Rove, it was just the sort of thing that happened when a group of young comedians and their guest stars were left to their devices in front a camera.

-Katie Cunningham

48. Mother and Son (1984 – 1994)

If you’re too young to have watched Mother and Son, fix that now. If you have seen bits of it, then you may remember how funny it was — and it is bloody funny — but you might not recall that it was also a very sad look at the complications that emerge when your parents begin to age. Maggie (Ruth Cracknell) may have been mean and manipulative and Arthur (Gary McDonald) was angry and a little pathetic, but their complex bond often made for very touching television. Old school, ruthless comedy at its best.

-Sinead Stubbins

47. Black Comedy (2014 – Present)

Black Comedy is such a consistently funny, clever and cutting look at Australian society that its reminiscent of our golden age of sketch comedy in the 1980s and early ’90s — but, like, better. By filtering parody through an Indigenous lens that we still don’t see enough of on our screens, Black Comedy has been able to tap material that hasn’t ever really been examined. This isn’t just refreshing just because it’s the first Indigenous sketch show since 1973; it’s also because it’s the best sketch comedy show Australia has had in years.

-Sinead Stubbins

46. Pizza (2000 – 2007)

Besides giving Rebel Wilson her first break and being one of SBS’ earliest original hits, Pizza was an unlikely milestone in Australian comedy. Set in the fictional western Sydney postcode of Hashfield, a suburban hell wracked by crime, poverty, welfare dependence and outer-city boredom, Pizza and its creator Paul Fenech put a part of Australia usually only covered with breathless outrage by A Current Affair on the map.

Where most commercial comedies shied away from controversy, Pizza embraced it in all forms, with whole plot lines covering subjects other networks were too squeamish to even acknowledge — racial tensions in low-income communities, poverty on the fringes of Australia’s major cities, corrupt and bullying behaviour by police. And through it all, Pizza stayed gloriously, unapologetically filthy – ludicrously slapstick sex scenes, multiple all-in brawls an episode, stereotypes so over-the-top they became iconic. Never has the word ‘stooge’ meant so much to so many.

-Alex McKinnon

45. The Marngrook Footy Show (2007 – Present) 

Here’s a novel idea: a footy show that actually discusses footy. Since settling in its return to NITV in 2013, The Marngrook Footy Show has established itself as one of the most reliable weekly sources for all things footy. It covers all things that make the great game great, celebrating footy’s Indigenous history, present and future, along with weekly ins and outs, interviewing a mix of current young guns and legends from previous eras. With an accessible, family-friendly light entertainment, chaired by regular hosts Grant Hansen, Leila Gurruwiwi, Shelley Ware and Gilbert McAdam, Marngrook Footy Show nails the format, and is going from strength to strength each season.

-Lachlan Kanoniuk

44. The Mole (2000 – 2003)

If there was ever an ideal place on the internet, it was on The Mole fan forums in the early 2000s. This show consumed people; a real-life whodunnit in which the audience and contestants alike had to guess who was the saboteur in a competition for cash and prizes.

No shade to revival host Tom Williams, but to host The Mole you needed to be slightly menacing. This show is meant to make you second-guess everything — side-along glances, slight missteps, changes in tone — and feeling uneasy is part of the thrill. This is why original host Grant Bowler was the ultimate ringleader of the mind games Olympics — who knew what was going on beneath that smirk?

-Sinead Stubbins

43. Race Around The World (1997)

In a time before camera phones and Skype, eight young people were given a digital camera and a fistful of plane tickets to travel the world and make a documentary. You could look at Race like a precursor to the social media age; over 100 days, the “racers” were required to make ten four-minute mini-films and send them back to the ABC for editing. The audience would vote for whose film they liked best week-to-week and, wouldn’t you know it, the popular vote went to a young upstart from Melbourne called John Safran, who also covertly filmed priests giving confession in Brazil, much to the ABC’s dismay.

-Sinead Stubbins

42. Cleverman (2016 – Present) 

While this Aboriginal sci-fi thriller just finished its first season, it’s already locked in a second, and with good reason. With its 80 percent Indigenous cast and a premise drawn from Dreaming stories, the story of a vilified superhuman race and a reluctantly superpower-ed Aboriginal anti-hero was a massively overdue new chapter in the history of Australian genre storytelling (and as a co-production with Sundance Channel, it’s also bringing local content to the US).

It’s not perfect — the script and plotting could certainly be tighter, and it’s struggled to find a balance between enough exposition and too much — but between the charismatic leads and the deft interweaving of ancient stories and a horribly familiar contemporary political climate, it’s unlike anything else on Australian TV.

-Caitlin Welsh

41. John Safran Versus God (2004)

John Safran Versus God was an eight-part series that was kind of like Louis Theroux’s documentaries about religion, but with more mentions of Sara-Marie and “the bum dance”. Safran did everything from ancient Viking ceremonies, voodoo ritual killings, requested a fatwa to be put on Rove McManus and learnt about Catholicism through a then-unknown Father Bob.

If you remember anything about John Safran Versus God, it’s probably the exorcism scene. Safran, who at first is politely incredulous at the idea that his soul has been overwhelmed by demons, soon becomes very nervous as Christian fundamentalist/part-time exorcist Bob Larson starts the procedure. We then see several tense minutes of footage in which Safran goes into a sweaty trance, starts panting, growling and having some sort of fit. His crew watches on, nervously. Safran still maintains that he has few memories of the event.

-Sinead Stubbins

40. The Panel (1998 – 2004)

Originally created due to a little-known statute in the Broadcasting Services Act that requires at least five members of the Working Dog posse to have regular appearances on Australian network TV at any given time, The Panel aired for an impressive six years. Its appeal did admittedly depend on your level of fondness for the antics of Glenn Robbins, Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner, Kate Langbroek and Santo Cilauro (and your ability to tell all those middle-aged white guys apart).

But as chatty variety shows go, thanks to the cast’s well-established rapport, it had an openness and looseness that went well with that second or third glass of red after dinner, and it was good for an old-fashioned controversy — whether it was a taboo f-bomb (man, 1998 was a different [prime] time) or Langbroek breastfeeding her five-week-old baby live on the show (which was a power move that hasn’t been matched since).

-Caitlin Welsh

39. Love My Way (2004 – 2007)

If The Secret Life Of Us Love managed to capture the experience of the listless, fuck-up twentysomething, then Love My Way was the older, more world-weary thirtysomething sibling. This was ‘grown-up’ television, a gritty series that unpacked the minutia of grief, distrust, jealousy and addiction and somehow was still a show that you wanted to watch. The show was a heavy hitter in terms of its cast too, starring Claudia Karvan, Asher Keddie, Brendan Cowell, Ben Mendelsohn and guest starring a then-unknown Sam Worthington. If you’re diving in for the first time, be warned — the infamous eighth episode is gut-wrenching.

-Sinead Stubbins

38. Home and Away (1988 – Present)

It may make you cringe in a way that nothing else does, but it’s hard to deny that Home and Away is woven into our cultural fabric. Well, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to deny this — everyone is thin and white! The storylines don’t make much sense! How did one beachside town have so many natural disasters!

But from the very beginning Home and Away was quite controversial, stirring up protests in its very first season for depicting a sexual assault storyline (even now, it’s the eighth most complained about show in Australia’s history). As recently as 2009, Channel Seven was flooded with complaints after an episode in which a same-sex couple kissed. “Flamin’ galahs!” Alf was heard to remark.

-Sinead Stubbins

37. Redfern Now (2012 – 2015)

The first program developed by the ABC’s Indigenous Department, Redfern Now looks frankly at issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, crime and family friction in the Aboriginal communities of Sydney. The result is a show that’s captivating and a little too real — but of course, that’s the point. We don’t often see the issues confronting Indigenous Australians on our screens — particularly stories that take place in the suburbs — and it’s important that we do. Redfern Now might tackle similar themes to other dramas, but the shift of focus to the perspective of non-white characters means that well-worn dramatic territory held much greater resonance.

-Sinead Stubbins

36. Sale of the Century (1980 – 2001)

Your parents will probably say Tony Barber, but the Glenn Ridge era of Sale (1991-2001) redefined what a prime-time TV game show could be. Backed by Jo Bailey (and later Nicky Buckley and Karina Brown), Ridge was the ultimate game show host: dependable, sharp and suave. Instead of repurposing a US or British format, this original Aussie concept took the best bits of Jeopardy and somehow made them more fun. Who could forget the exhilarating (yes, exhilarating!) final fast money round, or the notorious fame game, where the answer to “Who am I?’ was sadly never “Glenn Ridge”.

-Darren Levin

35. rage (1987 – Present)

You can hear that iconic scream already, can’t you? A breathy whisper, like Madonna in your ear. A furious repetition, like a growling Prodigy beat. A howl that resolves into a screech, like that industrial metal video you couldn’t stop staring at on the couch at 3am. rage is an unfuckwithable icon for Australian music fans, and the ABC has for the most part had the good sense not to fuck with it for nearly 30 years. It still has a policy of always showing whole music videos start to finish, and it’s still carefully scheduling a mix of charts, indies, and oddities in that all-important chunk of time between the last ABC shows on Friday night and 6am Saturday morning, where anything from ‘Windowlicker’ to the uncensored ‘Bohemian Like You’ clip was fair game.

How many of your favourite songs have you first learned the title of from that white sans-serif font? How many stoned Saturday nights have you sat up late, with friends or alone, marvelling at the weird shit Mike Patton’s picked out for your enjoyment and cackling at the unscripted awkwardness of your favourite bands trying to explain why they like Wendy Matthews?

-Caitlin Welsh

34. SeaChange (1998 – 2000)

If you grew up in a small town, you know a real-life counterpart for at least half the characters of Pearl Bay. Bob Jelly, the greasy Shire President property developer; Heather, the perfect, achingly unfulfilled housewife; Kevin and Trevor, the lovably gormless father-son fishing duo.

Besides teasing viewers with the prospect of Laura and Diver Dan making out for an entire season, SeaChange stripped city viewers of their preconceptions of the imaginary ‘idyllic’ country town as quickly and brutally as it could. Teen suicide; rural depression; domestic violence; euthanasia; the everyone-knows-everyone closeness of small towns that smothers as much as it comforts. SeaChange loved to draw you in, make you love its characters and hope for them, before delivering an emotionally devastating dose of reality.

-Alex McKinnon

33. Big Brother (2001 – 2014)

It wasn’t an Australian concept. We know this. But like it or not, the early seasons of Big Brother were national talking points. This show showed a version of Australia that people weren’t always comfortable with, whether it was conservatives who blamed their background for their bigoted views or filthy rich young people with no idea of their privilege. They sometimes expressed ignorance that we didn’t like to see reflected back. Gretel Killen’s barely concealed disdain for the show made it all the better.

Big Brother was so ubiquitous that its very existence became a national debate. Then Prime Minister John Howard implored Channel Ten to “take this stupid program off the air”, which of course didn’t work, but after intense pressure from politicians Channel Ten did axe the Adults Only late-night component of the show (it was also the same year as the “turkey slapping” incident, so they were on thin ice as it was). Watching clips from it now is like delving through time capsules — who could forget Merlin’s eviction in 2004, a “FREE THE REFUGEES” protest streaming on live television?

-Sinead Stubbins

32. Australian Story (1996 – Present)

This ABC stalwart, which turns 20 this year, does what it says on the tin. Conceived in the mid-’90s as a counterpoint to the adversarial, cynical journalism Frontline was so good at skewering, the wide-ranging documentary series can cover anything in a given week: the intimate life of an Australian celebrity, the surprising local connections in an international incident, or an ordinary citizen with a story to tell. It’s won seven Walkleys and four Logies, and while it’s tended to skew towards the maudlin (the Chaser once described it, in a convincingly gloomy CNNNN parody, as “beautifully told, award-winning misery”) it can always be relied on to deliver the yarns.

-Caitlin Welsh

31. Wilfred (2007 – 2010)

Who’s a good boy? Not Wilfred, that’s for fuckin’ sure. He doesn’t like his owner’s new boyfriend, and the boyfriend (Adam Zwar) isn’t sure why he’s the only one who sees his girlfriend’s dog as a fuzzy-suited, bong-ripping, foul-mouthed, man-sized canine with abandonment issues (Jason Gann). Wilfred started as the star of the breakout hit of Tropfest in 2002, in the eponymous short film.

Four years later Gann and Zwar had turned those seven minutes into a bleary, dark and surreal stoner sitcom for SBS – who’d given them the unprecedented freedom to go “as weird as [they] want”. The character even made it to an equally weird, slightly sweeter US adaptation, where Gann taught Elijah Wood the life-affirming power of affectionate c-bombs and Gatorade bongs, and proved that one of the most Australian cult comedies of all time was also strangely universal.

-Caitlin Welsh

30. Bananas in Pyjamas (1992 – 2001)

Somewhere between the Gumby revival and Teletubbies, the ubiquitous children’s franchise of the moment revolved around two anthropomorphic bananas who patrol their local beach in full-length striped PJs with floral board shorts over the top, hang out with a trio of teddy bear mates, and try to avoid being suckered by the nefarious schemes of dodgy local businessman Rat In A Hat. The original live-action half-hour of the series, where the characters were played by actors in suits, was revamped in 2011 as a 12-minute animated series that creeped everyone the fuck out. Long live the classic.

-Caitlin Welsh

29. Offspring (2010 – Present)

One of the most beloved dramas of recent years, Offspring raised star Asher Keddie to Rebecca Gibney levels of fame — and there’s no higher praise than that, my friends. Offspring follows the romantic and career dramas of Dr. Nina Proudman, an obstetrician in her thirties who wears a lot of silky scarves and has a lot of messy relationships with handsome doctors (and her eccentric family).

The shock death of a beloved character in season four caused such outrage and grief on social media that Offspring‘s impact is now undeniable. Can you think of another drama that has the balls to go on a two-year hiatus and know without a doubt that audiences would still wait for them?

-Sinead Stubbins

28. D-Generation (1986 – 1989)

If the only thing this legendary ‘80s sketch show gave us was Magda Szubanski then that would be enough. But it also birthed some of the most important comedic voices in the country – from the inimitable and underrated Marg Downey to the Working Dog crew, who went on to create Frontline, Utopia, The Castle, The Panel and The Dish; and, yep, you can blame thank D-Gen for Mick Molloy too.

Created by the ABC and a bunch of Melbourne University upstarts in 1986, D-Gen elevated uni revue send-ups into a national art-form. Full Frontal, Fast Forward, The Late Show, Big Girl’s Blouse – it all started here.

-Darren Levin

27. Russell Coight’s All-Aussie Adventures (2001 – 2002)

Russell Coight is a character that could only work on Australian TV. The lovechild of innumerable blokey great outdoors personalities like Steve Irwin, the Bush Tucker Man and the Leyland Brothers, Glenn Robbins’ Russell Coight was the perfect combination of put-on ockerisms, misplaced confidence and total incompetence.

But besides the premise, the gold of All Aussie Adventures was pure physical comedy and sight gags. Coight inevitably stumbling when he rests his foot on something; his excruciating interactions with genuine bush locals; the constantly reused close-up of the same handshake, no matter who the two people are. No matter the setting, the show wouldn’t have worked if Robbins wasn’t able to deliver such a ludicrous performance as he did.

-Alex McKinnon

26. Enough Rope (2003 – 2008) 

Andrew Denton’s tiny, wild-haired presence has been all over Australian TV for decades – his production company, Zapruder Films, was behind staples like CNNNN, the Gruen franchise and the ABC’s excellent but short-lived Hungry Beast.

But it was Enough Rope that showcased Denton at his best. While the show garnered high ratings for attracting luminaries like Bill Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Jane Goodall, it was his interviews with lesser known figures that left their mark. From Dave Hughes opening up about his alcoholism, to cab drivers relating their wildest stories on the job, to a former Ku Klax Klan leader recalling his path out of racism, Enough Rope trusted its subjects to show their human side, and the end result was often something immensely special.

-Alex McKinnon

25. Blue Heelers (1994 – 2006)

Mount Thomas did seem to have a laughably high crime rate, but Blue Heelers was still one of Australia’s most important dramas for more than a decade. There was something very respectable about it; it was a show where you’d find prestigious Australian actors like John Howard, Bud Tingwell and Peter O’Brien stirring up trouble, among many questionable storylines about land disputes.

Of course the two standouts were Constable Maggie Doyle (Lisa McCune) whose savage murder in season seven was one of the most-watched moments in Australian TV history, and the beloved Sergeant Tom Croyden (John Wood), a father figure to the young, troublesome cops of Mt. Thomas. When John Wood won the Gold Logie after being nominated for nine consecutive years, it was a touching moment for the nation. Dad!

-Sinead Stubbins

24. Puberty Blues (2012 – 2014) 

Based on the 1979 book of the same name, Puberty Blues was a funny, sweet and sometimes difficult-to-watch show that was just as exciting for its recreation of a 1970s Cronulla as it was as a depiction of teenage friendship.

Part of the reason this show was so good was the two main actresses, Breanna Harding (Sue) and Ashleigh Cummings (Debbie), who managed to convey a balance of naivety and enthusiasm, with extreme weariness at the exhausting daily task of being a teen girl. The show took the needs and wants of teenage girls seriously, and never judged them for wanting to be liked by cool girls and boyfriends. The best thing about Puberty Blues was that it was unashamedly colloquial; it completely belonged to us.

-Sinead Stubbins

23. Full Frontal (1993 – 1997) 

Stepping into the gap left by sketch series Fast Forward, this worthy successor was one of the defining Australian comedy shows of the mid-’90s (even if now some of the impressions seem very tone deaf. The power of retrospect!). Claiming four consecutive Gold Logies for Most Popular Comedy Program, Full Frontal was at its best when taking the piss out of politicians and media personalities, from Paul Keating to Ray Martin to the eternally mockable Pauline Hanson (whatever happened to her anyway?).

The show is also remembered for helping launch the careers of Eric Bana and Shaun Micallef, who between them played some of the program’s most memorable recurring characters, including Bana’s chain-smoking, mullet-sporting TV presenter Peter (“It’s Poida!“) and Micallef’s take on male model Fabio, “the most beautiful man in the cosmos.”

Tom Clift

22. The Late Show (1992 – 1993) 

The Late Show only ran for two seasons and was filled to the brim with topical, colloquial references, which makes it impressive how influential it has remained. The Late Show‘s parody music videos, well-made for a low-budget show, became inseparable from the original songs. I can’t hear Ween singing: “push the little daisies and make them come up” without thinking “sing like a dickhead and dance like a duck”, and Mick Molloy’s clowning in their version of Frente’s ‘Accidentally Kelly Street’ (‘Accidentally Was Released’) was so on-point that the girlfriend of the musician he was impersonating dumped the guy after seeing it. The Late Show was full of the smart ass kids who you wanted to be friends with, but were a little scared of.

Jody Macgregor

21. The Graham Kennedy Show (1977 – 1979)

Even if you’ve never seen The Graham Kennedy Show, you probably still have one particular point of reference: “Oh, that’s the one where Graham said ‘fuck’ on live TV!” Yes, yes it is. In 1975, Kennedy caused a media shitstorm by saying “faaaaaaaark” during a live read of a hairspray commercial. His defence? He was pretending to be a crow! Channel Nine received hundreds of complaints, but due to his enormous popularity, they couldn’t let him go. There were rumours that Kennedy only did it because he was sick of the late nights filming live TV and knew that a pre-recorded show would allow him to go home earlier.

First on In Melbourne Tonight with Bert Newton and then on The Graham Kennedy Show, Kennedy was called ‘The King Of Television’ because he was easily the most charismatic Australian on TV. He brought with him an exciting spontaneity and a dislike of authority that led him to constantly push boundaries (and upset Channel Nine). Graham Kennedy was our Johnny Carson, and it’s hard to imagine the Roves and Shaun Micallefs and Paul McDermotts existing without him.

Sinead Stubbins

20. Q&A (2008 – Present) 

Look, I know. No one likes watching Q&A. Half the time it’s a hideous noisefest of politicians and self-appointed talking heads striving to be heard over each other, and besides, no one could love a show that regularly gives Christopher Pyne a platform, it’s biologically impossible.

But! And it is a big ‘but’. When it gets it right, there aren’t many shows that can match Q&A. Ignoring all the Twitter nonsense and the awful people from the IPA they get on, Q&A’s central premise – subjecting public figures to live questioning from regular people – still produces some incredible moments of TV that can actively shape the country. Students hijacking the broadcast to protest uni fee deregulation; a single father on welfare grilling Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer; Joe Hockey melting under a barrage of hostile questioning. Those are the moments that keep people tuning in, despite themselves. As frustrating as it is, Q&A sometimes pulls off its mantra of ‘democracy in action’.

-Alex McKinnon

19. Please Like Me (2013 – Present) 

One of the most internationally beloved Australian shows in recent memory, Josh Thomas’ debut series has finally given the world a televisual touchpoint for our country that isn’t Neighbours. In fact, it’s — thankfully — entirely fucking different.

With groundbreaking and affecting explorations of mental health and sexuality, this show is a refreshingly insightful take on the conventional sitcom with all the traditional beats to match. It’s funny. It’s relatable. It gives each of its neurotic and endlessly loveable characters — including Josh’s parents — the depth they deserve. And, not for nothing, its infectious opening theme will make you want to become a better cook.

Meg Watson

18. Underbelly (2008 – 2013) 

“When I was young,” I will tell my grandkids, “my father and I had to borrow bootleg DVDs of Underbelly from a friend in Sydney, because we weren’t allowed to watch it in Melbourne”.

The first season of Underbelly was inescapable in its controversy: partly because of the intense marketing campaign, gratuitous violence and sex, but mainly because it couldn’t be shown in Victoria because of a court injunction. Because the show depicted the crimes of drug kingpins, some of who were still on trial, Underbelly was shown in Melbourne six months later than in the other states and territories. Even if it had sucked (it didn’t), it was a pretty exciting way to start.

The show was slick and dynamic, with some critics praising it as the best Australian drama of all time and audiences relishing in the misdeeds of the Carlton Crew and the infamous Carl Williams. While later seasons dealt with other real-life Australian crime stories, they never seemed as exciting as the immediacy of the gangland war in Melbourne.

Sinead Stubbins

17. Neighbours (1985 – Present) 

This may be a controversial opinion, but Neighbours is just better than Home and Away (then again, this is a list, so every choice is bound to be controversial). There has to be a reason why people have made the pilgrimage to the Ramsay Street cul-de-sac for over thirty years, right? For one, Neighbours was a star-maker in a way that Home and Away never was, with cast members including Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrem, Jesse Spencer, Alan Dale, Caitlin Stasey and Margot Robbie.

Every generation has their key Neighbours moment. It could have been Scott and Charlene’s wedding (still the highest rating episode of an Australian soap), or when Harold Bishop suddenly reappeared five years after his suspected death (he had amnesia, obviously). Or when Didge died in a car crash, shielding her newborn baby? Or perhaps it was Toady’s wedding day, when he and his wife drove off a cliff (poor Dee!)? Or when Steph Scully discovered on her wedding day that her sister Flick had slept with her fiance, Mark? Man, there were a lot of weddings on Neighbours.

Sinead Stubbins

16. Recovery (1996 – 2000) 

Dylan Lewis was once the coolest guy on the planet. That Mike Patton eyebrow ring. Those peroxide spikes. The cheap pin-striped suits. That rubbery face. Almost a decade after Countdown, Australian Gen-Xers finally had a generation-defying music show of their own.

Co-hosted by Lewis and the equally iconic Jane Gazzo – and featuring SAW co-creator Leigh Whannell and Fargo star Angus “The Enforcer” Sampson before they were famous – Recovery didn’t just reflect Australian “alt” culture in the mid-1990s, it helped define it. From Jon Spencer literally tearing the stage apart to train-wreck interviews with Silverchair and Weezer, this was music television at its unpredictable, unrefined best.

Darren Levin

15. Masterchef (2009 – Present) 

No show on television can wring as much tension out of the misguided decision to add white chocolate to a dish as Masterchef Australia. Currently in its eighth season (spinoffs don’t count), the local version of the British reality show has helped shape culinary trends, turned its judges into household names, and sent Coles’ profit margins skyrocketing. It seems to have transcended demographics in a way that reality TV can’t easily do these days, becoming compulsory free-to-air viewing in an age where people are more inclined to download and stream TV than watch it live. Keeping an eye on Twitter is an essential to the Masterchef viewing experience.

Of course, the fantasy that regular viewers might actually be able to replicate the efforts of the contestants at home grows more and more preposterous with every passing challenge – how many Aussie kitchens have their own industrial vacuum sealers? Still, any program that can turn the structural integrity of a croquembouche into the foundations for high drama is obviously doing something right.

Tom Clift

14. The Movie Show and At The Movies (1986 – 2014)

I think I can speak for the whole of Australia when I say that we all took Margaret and David for granted. We just did. For decades they were always there, reclining in plush armchairs, bringing us the latest from Cannes and begging us to see this great local film that was only being shown in four theatres across the country. It felt like they would always be on TV, a comforting presence that we didn’t watch as much as we should, but who we loved all the same just for being there.

The format was borrowed from the US, but Margaret and David made the show an Australian classic. Why did these two people resonate so much with audiences they could successfully leave SBS for the ABC, just because they didn’t like the way things were being run? How did they become such pop culture touchstones that even people who didn’t regularly watch their show knew who they were? Maybe it was a combination of things. The format, people just sitting and talking about movies, is still a rarity on TV. It was the only dedicated film show on Australian TV and nothing since has replaced it.

It could be the relationship between the hosts: Margaret always so expressive and enthusiastic, and David so still and disapproving. They disagreed a lot (there were only five times in 28 years where they both gave a film five stars), made fun of how predictable the other was, and were often very cross. However, they were still respectful of their differences and never pushed each other too far (well, almost never).

Somehow, At The Movies was still the most soothing show ever to be on Australian TV.

Sinead Stubbins

13. Round The Twist (1989 – 2001) 

Sometimes nostalgia causes us to remember the shows that we loved as kids incorrectly: it made more narrative sense at the time, or it wasn’t really that interesting and just allowed us to project pockets of imagination in its blank spaces. But Round the Twist seems to defy the unfair retrospective praise, because it is exactly as weird and sweet and spooky and off-beat as you remember.

The premise, based on a series of Paul Jennings stories, was simple: the three Twist kids lived with their dad in a rundown lighthouse, which was constantly under threat by the conniving real estate tycoon/Senate candidate, Mr. Gribble. The kids had to navigate awkward coming-of-age problems (also Linda Twist was a feminist, which seemed baffling to her family) and a slew of strange supernatural happenings that seemed to follow them wherever they went. It didn’t matter which season or set of kids was ‘your’ season, because it managed to retain the same spirit throughout the years. Round the Twist still holds up.

Sinead Stubbins

12. Play School (1996 – Present)

Play School has been on Australian TV for 50 years this month — that’s three generations of kids being raised on the warmest, friendliest bunch of hardworking actors and stuffed toys to ever trick you into learning something. If there’s a photo in your parents’ house of toddler-you gazing open-mouthed and snot-nosed at the TV, the odds are strong that you’re absorbed in Benita’s animated reading, hanging out to see which shape of window we’ll be looking through today, or being introduced to the poetry of Spike Milligan. The theme song says it all: it’s simple (there’s a bear in there, and a chair as well); it’s fun (people with games, and stories to tell); it’s for everyone (open wide, come inside).

PS: If you want to check how deeply seared into your subconscious the format is, try this little experiment: watch five minutes of Sammy J making a cardboard offshore detention centre in a pitch-perfect Play School parody, complete with whimsical live piano accompaniment, and see which breaks first: your brain or your heart.

Caitlin Welsh

11. The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) (1998 – 2001) 

Australia’s affinity for sketch shows is borne of an ingrained want to take the piss. With The Micallef Program (later Programme for season two, Pogram for season three), Full Frontal alumni Shaun Micallef took piss extraction to its logical extreme, revelling in self-parody while anchored by wickedly dry wit.

Micallef plays the role of intellectual buffoon, pulling off wry satire and and pure slapstick (such as the timeless rotating room gags) with aplomb – buoyed by a dynamic supporting cast of Francis Greenslade, Wayne Hope, Roz Hammond and Daina Reid. The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) pushed sketch comedy to its limits, a triumphant, ridiculous supernova of the form – a peak that will be impossible to match.

Lachlan Kanoniuk

10. Australian Idol (2003 – 2009) 

In 2003, you were a Guy or you were a Shannon. I can’t recall an election that so dramatically divided households as the one during the Australian Idol finale, between a sweet boy who even moved himself during a rendition of ‘Climb Every Mountain’ or a battling farmer who grunted ‘Working Class Man’ like he’d been practicing his Jimmy Barnes impersonation since his voice broke.

The early years of Australian Idol were exciting for how, well, live it all seemed. Hosts Andrew G (now Osher Günsberg) and James Mathison had been plucked directly from the looser cable network of Channel V, and even they seemed shocked about the immense scale of the show. The live season one finale at the Sydney Opera House attracted three million viewers and in 2007, was listed as the ninth highest rating TV show in Australia’s history. The concept of the audience being able to determine the outcome of a show by texting a television station seemed at the time to be revolutionary.

Sinead Stubbins

9. Acropolis Now (1989 – 1992) 

Australians needed no introduction to Greek culture when Acropolis Now first aired in 1989. Greek migrants had been steadily flowing into the country since the 19th Century, and by the late 1980s Melbourne stood as one of Greece’s largest post-war diasporas. While the Greek influence on Aussie suburbia was pervasive – from cafes to milk bars, fruit shops to souvlaki joints – Greek characters were rarely front and centre in a largely whitewashed TV landscape.

It speaks volumes that the most famous “Greek” on TV, The Comedy Company’s Con The Fruiterer, was a thinly drawn caricature dreamed up by an Anglo actor (Mark Mitchell). So when Acropolis Now emerged a year later, it felt like a powerful statement of reclamation. These wogs weren’t going to be out-wogged by anyone, let alone some skip with a poorly drawn monobrow.

Born out of the wildly popular stage play Wogs Out Of Work, Acropolis Now centred around a Greek café owned by Jim (Nick ‘The Wog Boy’ Giannopoulos), his Spanish manager Ricky (Simon Palomares), horny waiter Memo (George Kapiniaris) and the eminently quotable hairdresser Effie (Mary Coustas), one of the most unforgettable characters in Australian TV history.

Effie’s frequent malapropisms (“How embarrassment” was adopted into mainstream Aussie culture quicker than you could say “Not happy Jan”) and Memo’s hapless attempts at picking up women provided the LOLs, but Acropolis Now was an important show for the way it flipped the script on ethnic comedy in this country. By creating a world in which Anglo-Saxon Aussies were the outsiders (the show actually popularised the word “skip”), it paved the way for a new generation of young writers and actors that weren’t afraid to be themselves.

Darren Levin

8. The Chaser’s War On Everything (2006 – 2009) 

The Chaser’s War On Everything was controversial from the get go,  with Julian Morrow in legal trouble for presenting Charles Stott of the Australian Wheat Board, who was then mired in a scandal over business dealings with Saddam Hussein, with a novelty cheque that would help Hussein’s legal costs. Even their legal problems were fodder for jokes: “Wouldn’t it be funny, Julian, if the only person to get jailed in the AWB was you?”

What made The Chaser different from other comedy was their fearlessness. Whether it was purely for a gag (like Clive the Slightly-Too-Loud Commuter talking about sperm samples on public transport), or in pursuit of a point (like the fake motorcade of rented limos they managed to drive through two security points at the 2007 APEC Summit before Chas Licciardello stepped out of one dressed as Osama Bin Laden), they seemed to have no sense of self-preservation whatsoever.

The Chaser‘s secret weapon wasn’t anything to do with their controversies and how frequently they riled up the press, though. It was Andrew Hansen’s contribution, and I don’t mean his hair. His songs were palate cleansers, wafer-thin slices of Monty Python between the less digestible meals. His pisstake of Doctor Who fans was so perfect it’s been adopted by them as a badge of pride, and the one song that attracted controversy, ‘The Eulogy Song’, is still relevant today, just quietly.

Jody Macgregor

7. The Dream With Roy and HG (2000 – 2004) 

The 2000 Sydney Olympics were a great and glorious time in Australia, for many different reasons. But arguably the greatest cultural milestone from those sixteen days is The Dream, the deliriously nonsensical daily wrap of the Games by Roy and HG on Channel 7 that came to be as much of a fixture as the Games themselves. A relentless focus on contestant’s genitals, a constantly rotating rosters of bewildered foreign athletes as guest stars and a large dose of genuine national pride combined into something extremely strange and entirely wonderful. Go watch their live commentary of Eric “The Eel” Moussamabani’s incredible Pyrrhic victory in the heats of the 100 metre freestyle if you don’t believe me.

We remember you, Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat. Australia yearns for the return of the Battler’s Prince.

-Alex McKinnon

6. Heartbreak High (1994 – 1999)

Heartbreak High tackled issues as far-reaching as freedom of speech and the Republic debate to domestic violence and sexual assault, back when the Twist kids were just trying to figure out how to save the lighthouse. It first aired in 1994 on Channel Ten before being picked up by the ABC, at a time when conversations about Australia’s fluid national identity – particularly in relation to reconciliation, and parts of society that were routinely discriminated against – were gaining momentum. This was the year that The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding became hits, signaling a shift in the conversation about the ‘right’ way to represent Australia in popular culture, and what that even meant.

The show was set at a high school in a multicultural suburb of Sydney, and challenged the default white male experience of most TV dramas. The kids were Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Lebanese and South American, and many of them came from non-English speaking households. They clashed with migrant parents and clashed with each other. But Heartbreak High asserted that despite their cultural differences, these kids were essentially the same, sharing the same ups and downs of adolescence. Given the most popular Australian shows on TV in 1994 were Blue Heelers and Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, this was a pretty drastic departure from the usual whitewashed dramas.

Sinead Stubbins

5. Frontline (1994 – 1997) 

In a way the fact that Frontline is still relevant is depressing. Part of what made Frontline great was that it wasn’t just a lecture about the ratings-hungry amorality of current affairs TV but a thrilling drama in its own right. When the staff manage to land an exclusive interview with the gunman in ‘The Siege’ it’s tense and exciting to watch, and when they celebrate afterwards it’s tempting to celebrate with them.

Frontline expertly borrows from handheld-camera shows with snappy dialogue where experts do their high-risk jobs. That sucks us in, and only later – like in that episode’s shocking conclusion – does Frontline turn the tables to remind us why the seductive lie of maverick TV journalists breaking the rules is so dangerous.

Also, we’ll never be able to see a reporter in the field crouching in front of a camera without remembering Martin Di Stasio five kilometres away from the action, explaining: “it makes it look like I’m in danger.”

Jody Macgregor

4. Prisoner (1979 – 1986)

Looking back, it’s sort of hard to imagine how Prisoner ever got made. Campy and violent yet somehow strangely endearing, it’s a program that feels both way ahead of its time and extraordinarily specific to the era in which it was made. Indeed, while Foxtel’s reboot Wentworth is a strong show in its own right, it could never hope to capture the same soapy brilliance that made the original one of this country’s best loved shows.

Running from 1979 to 1986, Prisoner – subtitled Cell Block H in much of the rest of the world – followed the exploits of the various inmates at the Wentworth Detention Centre, including hardened veteran Bea (Val Lehman), elderly boozer Lizzie (Sheila Florance) and child-like oddball Doreen (Colette Mann). Also featured were the various correctional officers, most memorably personified by Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick), a corrupt, ruthless, sadistic lesbian prison guard rightfully remembered as one of the best villains in Australian TV history.

Over the course of its whopping 692 episode run, the show chronicled the various power struggles, romantic relationships, violent murders and innumerable escape attempts that played out within Wentworth’s four walls. The plots were frequently ludicrous, yet the core group of characters always remained compelling. Moreover, despite the pervy connotations of the women in prison genre, the show mostly managed to avoid being exploitative, handling taboo subject matter such as homosexuality and abuse with surprising honesty and relative grace.

Tom Clift

3. Countdown (1974 – 1987) 

Lip-synching has a bad rap these days but in the 1970s it was the only way to get your music on-air and, fake though it was, getting Australian music on TV was a big deal. Countdown was a huge booster of local music, becoming inseparable from the careers of glam bands of the era like Skyhooks and Sherbert but also helping to launch everyone from Kylie Minogue to AC/DC thanks to its role as a national pastime.

Countdown also broadcast music videos at a time when that was rare. It may have begun as a cost-saving measure, but having those videos representing foreign acts made the likes of ABBA and Madonna famous in Australia before they were known anywhere else in the world.

Countdown was about pop music, gloriously inauthentic as it is, which is why Molly Meldrum was such a fitting host for it. The only household name in Australian music journalism (somewhere Dylan Lewis is crying), Molly was an awkward interviewer at best, who mumbled and ummed and erred his way through episodes even when he wasn’t off his head. The miming musicians and the slick clips were pure showmanship, but Molly was the opposite.

Like a lot of our favourite Australian TV shows – its grandchild Recovery, for instance – Countdown was rough around the edges and sometimes all the way through to the middle — just shit enough that we knew it was real.

Jody Macgregor

2. Kath and Kim (2002 – 2007)

Has there ever been a show on Australian TV quite as beloved as Kath and Kim? A show that so brutally satirised suburban Australia in all its kitchy, plastic furniture, slogan-tee glory, but still managed to be a sweet celebration of family? It was different. it was unyewsual.

The reason that Kath and Kim was so funny (you know, apart from the incredible comedic stylings of Jane Turner, Gina Riley, Glen Robbins and Peter Rowsthorn) was its cringing specificity. Kim probably wore rhinestone accessories similar to your younger cousins. Your mum probably had a breadmaker and athletic equipment that was gathering dust in the corner, just like Kath (maybe not the second thing — Kath was a yummy mummy). It made perfect sense for Sharon (played by the iconic Magda Szubanski) to be wearing a netball bib and to fall in love with Shane Warne at a wedding. Every beat catered exactly to the middle class audience it was lovingly lampooning.

Of course, a measure of Kath and Kim’s vice-grip on the zeitgeist can be measured by how many catchphrases it birthed. Just saying “noice” and “ploise” can still inspire peals of laughter, particularly in anyone who still dreams of being “effluent”. Telling someone that they’re a “Country Road’s size ten” is the perfect way to shame them when they simply refuse to “look at moiye”. And don’t even get me started on the beautiful bourgeois nightmare that is Prue and Trude.

There’s something strangely satisfying about the fact that America attempted to replicate Kath and Kim but never quite nailed it. This show was made explicitly for Australians, and no-one else could crack our secret code.

-Sinead Stubbins

1. The Secret Life Of Us (2001 — 2006) 

A group of friends live across three flats in a dilapidated apartment building in St. Kilda. In these flats they sleep with each other, fight about who slept with who, break-up and get back together again, realise that they’re gay, try to start their careers, try to keep their careers and cry a lot in sharehouse kitchens that are stuffed with crusty soy sauce containers, mismatched crockery and empty wine bottles.

God bless The Secret Life of Us.

Maybe in retrospect the haircuts seem less elegant and the cool youth lingo of the time hasn’t aged well, but at the time Secret Life was must-see television (it also launched the careers Claudia Karvan, Deborah Mailman, Samuel Johnson and Joel Edgerton, just to name a few). In 2004, The Age praised it as a “fresh and sexy Australian drama” that represented “a shift away from the usual hospitals, courts and cop shops; a vigorous series filled with contemporary urban characters”, which is absolutely true — it did sharply deviate from popular shows of the time like Blue Heelers and Stingers, which showed capable grown-ups doing important jobs.

According to that same article, in its first year, The Secret Life of Us consistently attracted a weekly national audience of over a million viewers, which it’s hard to believe happening these days. It turned out people were desperate to see an unemployed twentysomething “writer” named Evan (Samuel Johnson) binge-drink and secretly lust after his housemate Alex (Claudia Karvan), who was more concerned with being the best doctor in the country than with him.

Why did it resonate so much with audiences? The most obvious reason was that people like to watch the sexy adventures of young people who lived in a single apartment block and had to interact with each other after awkward encounters. In that way, it was a distant relation to Number 96, an Australian soap from the 1970s set in a building in Sydney (Number 96 was also the first show to feature a regular openly gay character). Maybe its casualness ‘edginess’ and its way of weaving together great writing and acting with suddsy soap storylines, made a nice change from the general conservatism under the Howard government.

Or maybe it was because young Australians were keen to see themselves reflected back — according to the 2001 Census, at the time 72% of those aged 20-24 years were living in big cities, many in share houses (He Died With A Falafel In His Hand also came out in 2001). Deborah Mailman’s beloved character Kelly, represented a landmark in featuring a regular indigenous character on primetime television. This show represented a reality that we didn’t always see on screens.

Even though The Secret Life of Us burned out quickly, never fully recovering from some of its key actors like Karvan and Johnson leaving the show, you can still see its influence in Australian dramas that came after. Stylistically, Love My Way, Offspring and Packed To The Rafters all owe it a debt, but it doesn’t feel like any of those shows every captured the zeitgeist in the same way. Maybe it’s not possible for free-to-air TV to be such essential, consensus viewing anymore. Whether you were addicted or not, it’s hard to imagine Australian TV without The Secret Life of Us.

Sinead Stubbins

Writers: Alex McKinnon, Darren Levin, Meg Watson, Caitlin Welsh, Katie Cunningham, Taryn Stenvei, Lachlan Kanoniuk, Sinead Stubbins, Tom Clift and Jody Macgregor.


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