Local dramas take the low road amid high stakes competition

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There are times when you have to wonder if the commercial free-to-air networks have a death wish. In this period of unprecedented competition, they serve up a relentless conga line of reality-TV shows that dominates primetime through most of the year.

In addition, and in a market where viewers have ready access to a stream of ambitious, accomplished, complex and compelling drama series – in recent months including such standouts as Chernobyl, Unbelievable and the second season of Succession – our commercial free-to-air networks are serving up pap: wobbly productions that look amateurish by comparison.

A recent pair presents a depressing illustration. Channel Ten is currently airing the second season of Playing For Keeps, while Seven has just finished screening Secret Bridesmaids’ Business. Boosted by a cash infusion from its parent company, the US giant CBS, Ten has shown some initiative in its commissions this year, notably with the winning Five Bedrooms. But Playing For Keeps is a missed opportunity, though it’s set in a world rich with possibilities.

Flimsy and frothy: Playing for Keeps shines a 'glamorous' light on the lives of  the wives and girlfriends of AFL stars.

Flimsy and frothy: Playing for Keeps shines a 'glamorous' light on the lives of the wives and girlfriends of AFL stars.Credit:Ten

With a focus on the wives and girlfriends of AFL stars, it surveys a clique that inspires hungry public curiosity and is perceived as glamorous. Potentially, PFK could look at life behind the gilded curtain and tackle all sorts of meaty subjects: the price of fame; the pressures that come with big contracts; the stress that professional sport can put on relationships; the impact of social-media storms.

Yet the soapie series is content to stay superficial: it has the emotional depth of a player contract. The producers, or the network, have made the decision to keep it frothy, which is fine, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so flimsy. The characters could still have some well-toned meat on their bones and create reasons for us to care about them. Mostly, though, the show excites only a mild curiosity about what Tahlia (Olympia Valance) will wear next.

PFK’s notion of a courageous move is to have her assert her independence by resolving to launch her swimwear line a couple of months earlier than her investors would ideally like. This is supposed to represent a significant statement of strength. But it’s more like much ado about nothing.

And then there’s Kath (Madeleine West), who must’ve presented a dilemma for the writers. Clearly, they wanted to keep the astute and seasoned WAG in the show, but the problem is that her husband, the former Southern Jets coach Brian (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), has decided he needs some healing time following the death of a star player and his team’s defeat in the finals. As a result, he’s decamped to the outback to run footy clinics. So how to keep Kath central to the story? Have her run for club president!

No, seriously. She has no corporate or relevant managerial experience, but she campaigns on a platform of having dutifully served the club. And she arrives for the vote battle-ready in a wasp-waisted power suit, with her hair pulled back to suggest that she means business. As she ascends to the presidency, viewers are required to contribute a mighty suspension of disbelief.

Over on Seven, and also ostensibly focused on women, Secret Bridesmaids’ Business is based on a play by Elizabeth Coleman which was also adapted for a 2002 ABC telemovie. Coleman has described it as a story of “friendship, fidelity and the potential danger of humungous weddings”. Her play is set over one night in a hotel room on the eve of the nuptials as the bride and her two bridesmaids moisturise, exfoliate, polish their nails, scoff champers and spill some previously hidden truths.

Missed opportunities: Georgina Haig plays bride-to-be Olivia in Secret Bridesmaids' Business.

Missed opportunities: Georgina Haig plays bride-to-be Olivia in Secret Bridesmaids' Business.Credit:Seven

Perhaps fearing that a social comedy about female friendship, rivalry and rituals wasn’t enough to drive a six-part series, Seven’s drama inserted a vengeful stalker and labelled the production a “romantic thriller”. Essentially this means that they’ve set a monster loose on the wedding party. His specialty is terrorising women, but he’ll also have a shot at family and friends who get in his way. Jakob (Alexander England) is every woman’s worst nightmare, a conniving predator capable of easy charm and punishing violence.

As with Playing For Keeps, the characters lack depth and their troubles appear confected as plot devices. Married mother of two Melanie (Abbie Cornish) unleashed Jakob’s rage when she ended her fling with him. Bride-to-be Olivia (Georgina Haig), who’s battled cancer, discovers her fiancé’s affair with her oncology nurse and cancels the wedding. Lawyer Saskia (Katie McGrath), secretly in love with Olivia, stole money from her firm to keep Olivia’s family vineyard afloat. All become targets and the focus is less on the women, their relationships and their values than on whom Jakob will ambush next and how he’ll attack them.

Secret Bridesmaid’s Business is also a missed opportunity. Coleman’s play about women, friendship, priorities, social pressures and the expectations tied up in weddings could’ve been a great springboard, but what has emerged is as unexciting as flat champagne.