Winter has always meant a little more couch time, and therefore a little more time in front of the TV. Couple colder weather with total lockdown in Melbourne, and millions more still in a quasi-state of coronavirus downtime, and you’ve got plenty of scope to settle in to a new series (or four).
Along with everyone else, Australian actors, comedians, directors and culture-makers are bunkering down with some soothing screen time. We spoke to 12 of them – here’s what they’re watching, streaming and bingeing.
Zoë Coombs Marr, comedian
I would love to say that I’m watching something classic and high-minded. Something worthy and well crafted – a perfect comedy like The Comeback or prestige existential drama like The Leftovers (both HBO, and both of which you should watch immediately).
But in all honesty I’m watching old episodes of Top Chef (Netflix) while I scroll through my phone only half paying attention. It’s where ego-driven American chefs make too much ceviche and then get drunk and yell at each other in a storeroom filled with Glad products while Padma Lakshmi judges them (and cycles through various stylists).
If reality TV is the comfort food of TV (it is), then Top Chef is the comfort food of TV comfort foods. There’s something so relaxing about a format where nothing really changes. Every episode there’s a “quick fire” challenge, and then a main challenge, and someone is eliminated. It’s as familiar as chicken noodle soup but with just enough clashing toxic cheffy personalities to surprise you with a novel coriander hit here and there. You’ll be midway through a standard mise en place skills test, and then some guy reveals his pet tortoise is his “little princess”. The format is boring, but people are weird. Chefs are intense. Is that wasabi in this ceviche? Plus, there’s about a million episodes and it’s worth it for Padma alone.
Simon Abrahams, creative director and Melbourne Fringe Festival CEO
I’m watching Stateless (ABC iView), which is based on the Cornelia Rau incident [in which an Australian permanent resident was unlawfully detained for 10 months in 2004 and 2005]. It’s a gripping drama about life inside immigration detention centres in Australia and [the people] who run them. I always support quality new Australian drama – our local industry makes some of the most important and engaging content – and Stateless has some of the best Australian talent in it (Asher Keddie, Cate Blanchett, Marta Dusseldorp, Fayssal Bazzi) and was produced by Tony Ayres, Elise McCredie and Blanchett. Even though it’s a true story and we sort of know what’s going to happen, it’s still constantly surprising – the sign of the perfectly paced drama. It’s definitely one of those “every Australian should watch this” kind of shows. I’m also watching every episode of Masterchef, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
Tosh Greenslade, voice-over artist, author, and actor on Mad as Hell
Flowers on Netflix. It’s a black comedy from the UK, written and directed by a guy called Will Sharpe. Julian Barratt (from The Mighty Boosh) and Olivia Coleman are a couple dealing with the husband’s debilitating depression. Sharpe plays this weird illustrator called Shun. It lures you in by being very funny to begin with, but by the end of it you’re a weeping mess. To say too much would spoil it, but it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of television I’ve ever seen.
If you’ve got kids – I don’t, but I basically am one – then watch Jim Henson’s The Storyteller on Amazon Prime with them. John Hurt narrates old folk tales and actors like Sean Bean, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders play them out opposite a bunch of Henson puppets. The telling of stories is one of the building blocks of humanity, but with the internet providing instant access to almost any piece of information, it’s a skill that feels like it’s being lost. This show, along with a few others like it, made me a performer. I don’t see anything like it being made today. If you can get through an episode without hanging off every word Hurt says, I don’t want to know you.
Maya Newell, documentary filmmaker (Gayby Baby and In My Blood It Runs
I just watched Knock Down the House (Netflix), an award-winning feature documentary that revolves around the US primary campaigns of magnetic female candidates who tumbled into politics because no one else was representing them or their communities. I’ve fallen for the charismatic powerhouse Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who uplifts and offers hope at a time when there is such dismay and despair in American Trumpism. This doc shows us the next generation of leaders who will rebuild and regenerate the new world.
Katie Noonan, musician and singer-songwriter
Ozark (Netflix). It’s about an everyday family caught up in a web of crime. The acting, directing and cinematography are extraordinary – it’s an addictive show and there are three solid seasons to delve into. The closing scene of season three is extremely intense. And I’ve also always had a crush on Jason Bateman.
Zindzi Okenyo, Play School presenter
Just like when I read books, I’ve got a few shows on the go depending on my mood. And it’s a mood-changing time. When I can’t deal with much stimulation or want a hiatus from doing too much thinking, I embarrassingly watch Netflix’s Nailed It! which is essentially a baking show in which amateur bakers attempt unbelievably difficult cakes and inevitably fail. It focuses on the joy of getting things wrong – even horribly wrong – and it’s genuinely hilarious, shocking and uplifting. You will cackle out loud.
Before bed, I’m binging on Veep on Foxtel. It’s irreverent and cutting and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s comic timing is exceptional. Veep follows Vice President of the United States Selina Meyers (Louis-Dreyfus) and her (occasionally) well-meaning but idiot advisors in their day-to-day lives at the office. It’s a show about monumental mistakes and watching the underdog try to dig their way out of a huge mess again and again. Although I’m not a diehard fan of Seinfeld, I'm a massive fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm (and the mockumentary style of filmmaking epitomised by Christopher Guest’s Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman), and Veep is comic perfection at its best. There are also a billion seasons because it premiered in 2012.
I can see there’s a theme developing here of imperfection, and I guess I’m gravitating towards shows like this. I’m someone who finds comfort in clarity, and I think surrendering to stories of people trying their best soothes me and helps me laugh at the strangeness of our current world.
Wesley Enoch AM, playwright, writer and Sydney Festival director
The Netflix series Messiah asks the question, “How would the world react if Jesus appeared to us today?” The writing is really good; it seeds enough doubt but rewards you with breathtaking reveals. It’s not actually a Christian series but it asks questions about what we put our faith in and what we should question.
The miniseries Hollywood (Netflix) describes a sliding doors moment that creates a new reality where sexism, homophobia and racism are being addressed in post-WWII Hollywood. I’ve loved the alternate future this series creates. It acknowledges the power of the silver screen to give hope to the neglected and ignored in society. I found myself in a state of euphoria by the final episode: the wooden, stilted dialogue of old-world Hollywood can still bring on the tears.
The Heights (ABC iView) is set in a multicultural community in the suburbs of Perth. It centres around a public-housing tower and the hopes of its residents. I think it’s a real picture of Australia and our communities. We get caught up in the aspirational representations of working Australians in most other soaps, but The Heights really feels like my family.
Virginia Gay, actor
[I’m watching] things that calm me, soothe me and make me laugh. And things with nice, simple morality, where the good guys win and order is restored. I think it’s a new subgenre of entertainment for the apocalypse – “apocatainment”, if you will. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (SBS On Demand) is very good for this – kind and very, very funny, with an incredibly good heart. Entirely consumable without leaving a sarcastic aftertaste in your mouth, or the feeling that they’re laughing at people’s pain or discomfort.
I’ve had a huge craving for films of my childhood – it’s like comfort food for the brain. Ruthless People, The Big Chill, Big, Clue, Outrageous Fortune, A League of Their Own. What’s been delightful is realising how perfectly crafted these films are and how well they hold up. You want a quick masterclass in how to write a near-perfect screenplay? The Big Chill is an obvious choice, with an Academy Award nomination, but what a perfect film. What performances. What a soundtrack!
But the show that’s been a complete revelation for me is Feel Good on Netflix. I love Mae Martin as a comedian – her stand up is exceptional. But this show is so honest and vulnerable. And so, so true and unwavering, and completely unique. And it manages to be so fucking funny while delivering a romantic comedy against the background of addiction. It’s also shot beautifully, which is not something you often see in a half-hour comedy. It’s got its own visual language and I love that. It’s so damn good that I’ve recommended it to everyone I know.
Lee Lewis, artistic director at Queensland Theatre
Things are really full on in the theatre world at the moment. When I get home, I’m too Zoomed out to watch much on screen. But I’ve gone back to reading plays and books on paper. Like a lot of people, I am retreating into escapist work. Yes, I have watched all the franchises again – The Fast and the Furious, the Jason Bourne [movies], Bond. If it blows up on screen, I will watch it! I do that because it’s nothing like the theatre I make. I can forget the heartbreaking decisions we’re all having to make when I watch impossible stunts. I wish I could be more high-brow and impressive, but I am really enjoying Masterchef – and I don’t even cook, so that is totally fantasy TV for me.
Geraldine Hickey, comedian
I’m watching The Hobbit movies (Stan). Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit who reluctantly goes on an adventure with some dwarves and a wizard … There are big battles and just when you think the dwarves’ team is about to lose, reinforcements in the way of giant eagles rock up. And nothing beats a bunch of giant eagles.
The best thing is it takes a week to watch them all. There’s enough action and adventure to keep you distracted from the real world, but not so much that it’s all you think about the next day. There’s plenty of violence, but no blood, so it doesn’t make you feel sick or give you nightmares. Plus, there’s the bonus of being able to move onto the Lord of the Rings movies.
Sally Caplan, head of content at Screen Australia
I’ve been watching the second season of Mystery Road on ABC. It carries on from the first series with detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) taking on a grizzly new murder case in a remote coastal community. It’s gripping. The cast is incredible, and it’s visually spectacular, which is no surprise given it’s directed by Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair. (Any fans of Scandi-noir drama will be pleased to know Sofia Helin from The Bridge has a starring role as an archaeologist.)
Also, The Secrets She Keeps on Ten. It’s a screen adaptation of the popular Michael Robotham novel – an edge-of-your-seat thriller about two women whose lives are vastly different, yet they become entangled through a shocking act. It’s binge-worthy and suspenseful, and the two main characters are brilliantly brought to life by Jessica De Gouw and Laura Carmichael.
The Beach (SBS On Demand) is an incredibly cinematic observational documentary that follows acclaimed filmmaker Warwick Thornton as he returns to country – an isolated beach in one of the most beautiful yet brutal environments in the world. It’s quite good timing to watch while we’re in isolation. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s raw and captivating … and filmed by his son, Dylan River. Thornton relies on the land throughout the experience, and some of the meals he prepares are truly incredible.
I also just watched the first episode of online series Cancelled (Facebook), which tells the real-life story of Australian director Luke Eve and his fiancé, Spanish actress Maria Albiñana, who had to cancel their wedding in Spain when the country went into lockdown … They play themselves and have filmed the entire show on a mobile.
Zohar Spatz, executive director at La Boite Theatre Company
The ABC recently released a bunch of new episodes of the animation Bluey on iView, and I was thrilled. As a mum of two under six, I have extended the one-hour TV rule to let us binge-watch episodes of this family of blue heelers. Set in my city, Brisbane, with the winding Brisbane River and the City Cats cruising past, I can’t help but snort with appreciative laughter at each episode. Ludo Studios and writer Joe Brumm manage to turn the mundane and domestic into seven minutes of deep joy. There is a camaraderie and reassurance I get every time I watch Mum and Dad, Chilli and Bandit, and their two girls, Bluey and Bingo, go about their lives.