The Triumphant Return Of ‘Puberty Blues’, The Best Australian TV Show You’re (Probably) Not Watching
The second season of the '70s-set series premieres on Ten tonight. You really should tune in, ya molls.
Australian free-to-air television is a deceptively easy target for mockery — in fact, slagging off the nightly offerings across the five major networks is practically a national pastime. The programmers at Channel Ten, in particular, have been in the line of critical fire for the past few years: a string of locally-produced reality flops, executive shakeups, and backstage turmoil across its morning and evening news divisions colluded to create a particularly nasty identity crisis for the network.
But don’t cry into your Chiko Roll for the folks at Ten just yet. A few years ago, the channel made an excellent decision when it commissioned a TV series based on Puberty Blues, the landmark 1979 book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey that itself became a landmark 1981 movie. Reading the novel — a strongly autobiographical work about Sue Knight and Debbie Vickers, two 13-year-olds growing up in Cronulla in the Fraser era — has been a national rite of passage for decades; watching the film — a fascinating time capsule that boasts the most earworm-y of theme songs — is practically a federal requirement if you wish to call yourself an Australian.
I fielded more than a few funny looks from friends after I banged on about the brilliance of the show’s first season when it aired in 2012. After all, for the uninitiated (or, more specifically, for most men), the idea that a show called Puberty Blues was intelligent, provocative and mature television could seem pretty ridiculous. But those who brushed off the show for fear it was little more than a weekly overdose of televised oestrogen did themselves a disservice. Perhaps no Australian TV show of the past few years has been so underestimated, or so good.
On bankies, molls and spunks: What Puberty Blues gets very right
Puberty Blues is ostensibly about Debbie and Sue’s fiercely loyal friendship, and the pressures they face as they fumble towards womanhood. That it happens against the backdrop of Australia in the late ‘70s is no small accident — in promos for the series (and on the Season One DVD packaging), the show was advertised as “A story about a nation growing up.”
Which may be a tad misleading — if you want a blow-by-blow of Australian politics at the end of the ‘70s, you aren’t going to get it here. What you will get is a primer in old-school Australian lingo (star Brenna Harding actually created an A-to-Z cheat sheet to the show’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, which you can find on its Facebook page), as well as a keenly observed and beautifully acted take on the era’s rapidly evolving sexual mores and how they affected not just impressionable, horny high schoolers but also their baby-boomer parents. This is far from a simple ‘high school’ show — equal weight is accorded the girls’ mothers and fathers, who are anxiously trying to behave like grown-ups and raise smart, self-possessed young women in an era that encouraged permissiveness and hedonism.
Australian TV mainstays Claudia Karvan and Susie Porter each give fine portrayals as Debbie and Sue’s respective mothers Judy and Pam, whose very different approaches to parenting create an ongoing tension that never devolves into cheap or catty competition. Judy is an uptight school principal who has a hard time laughing at herself; Pam is a freewheeling libertine who’s not above embarrassing her daughter by running naked on the beach or boldly passing along her copy of The Joy Of Sex. The show’s father figures are also handled with empathy: actors Jeremy Lindsay Taylor (Vicki’s sexually-frustrated dad Martin, who spent much of the first season masturbating in the garage) and Daniel Wyllie (Sue’s dad Roger, who took a daring career risk in last season’s finale) are just as compelling playing two men trying to maintain their grip on patriarchy at a time when the nuclear family was starting its slide towards cultural irrelevance.
So, yes: the adult storylines are great. But Debbie and Sue’s are even better. When the first season aired, Ashleigh Cummings (as Vicki) and Brenna Harding (Sue) won heaps of deserved critical praise — Harding, in fact, won a Logie for Most Popular New Female Talent last year, and you can watch her beautiful acceptance speech here. Their portrayals of the lovable, goofy outcasts are unaffected and, in many instances, close to heartbreaking (it’s rare to see a young female friendship rendered so beautifully in any medium.) In Season One, the series’ main story arc chronicled Debbie and Sue’s attempts at cracking the cool-kid code and becoming part of the ultra-popular Greenhills Gang, a group of gnarly surfers who wanted nothing to do with girls unless they were spreading their legs for a quick and dirty root. Debbie and Sue’s insouciance towards this sexist convention peaked in the Season One finale, which closed with a scene that played like a glorious ‘fuck you’ on behalf of every woman who’s ever been told she can’t run with the boys — and it brought a few tears to my eyes.
One of Puberty Blues’ greatest assets is a willingness to just go there, and I promise that even the most enlightened among you will probably find yourself wincing in shock multiple times per episode. Sex among teenagers — as a power grab, a curiosity or a half-hearted attempt at appeasement — is presented in all of its icky, weird, exhilarating glory. Literal gang bangs in the backs of panel vans, awkward alternatives for lubrication (“Got any Vaso?”), attempts at self-abortion, and, in the new season, one particularly graphic situation that turns, erm, pretty sticky are presented without judgement or condescension. I hesitate to call this stuff revolutionary, but it’s certainly unlike most of what the executives who commission Australia’s free-to-air series are bold enough to slap onscreen on any given night. Following along as young fans react to each episode on Twitter, for instance, is always a joy. Take a look:
Just watch this great show already, will you?
It’s almost too easy to parody the 1970s, what with their ridiculous hairstyles, antiquated sexual politics, questionable interior design trends, and utterly daggy pop-culture artifacts. (Speaking of which, anybody keen to see Helen Reddy when she tours the country next month?) Too often, it’s those lovably chintzy traits that unfairly take centre stage at the expense of finely wrought storytelling when filmmakers, screenwriters and actors decide to dramatise the era for mass consumption.
The makers of Puberty Blues understand those hallmarks are part-and-parcel of any project that re-imagines the period. But I assure you this: they’ve wisely taken this show far beyond those simple, hackneyed fallbacks and created something truly special. You really should check out Puberty Blues. If you’re a fan of lovingly crafted, finely written and gorgeously acted Australian TV dramas (of which there simply aren’t enough), you owe it to yourself and the show’s fleet creative team, who’ve worked wonders with a well-worn text that, on its face, may not seem relevant to the world as we know it in 2014. You won’t regret it, ya moll!
Season Two of Puberty Blues premieres on Network Ten at 8:30pm tonight.
Nicholas Fonseca is a freelance writer and editor and (sometime) master of film studies student based in Sydney. A former editor at Madison, Fonseca has written for WHO, Sunday Life and Foxtel magazines; prior to his arrival in Sydney, he was based in New York City, where he spent a decade as a staff member with Entertainment Weekly.