Top 10 Aussie TV dramas

By Jared Richards 15 June 2016
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The fondly remembered and frequently spoken of, from Number 96 to Summer Bay.

Since 1958, when Australia’s first serialised television drama, Autumn Affair, aired, our television shows have thrived and died at the mercy of ratings.

More than 200 home-grown dramas have been made, ranging from cop shows to soap operas and high school hijinks. Many are short lived; some continue to slog through 32 seasons (and counting).

Whether inspiring office banter the morning after, or longer nation-wide conversations, these 10 dramas left their mark on Australia’s cultural landscape. Cliff-hangers, plot twists and critical discussions of discrimination and racism have kept us talking through gripping storytelling or excellent acting.

At AG, we argued and fought over this list. Shows that just missed the mark include Sons and Daughters, Offspring, Redfern Now, SeaChange, All Saints, Please Like Me, Puberty Blues, Water Rats, and Underbelly.

Be warned: spoilers below!

Number 96 (1972-1977)

1218 episodes

The title card of Number 96
The title card of Number 96. Image credit: Network Ten

In the lead up to Number 96’s premiere on 13 March 1972, page-length newspaper ads counted down to “the night Australian television loses its virginity.”

Under the 1970 addition of an ‘R’ rating for TV and film, Number 96 was a trailblazer of adult-themed television. The racy five-days-a-week Number 96 centred on the fictional inhabitants of 96 Lindsay Street, a block of apartments in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, often filming in the city’s inner-east area.

The show thrived off controversy over its scandalous plotlines, frank and candid depiction of sex and frequent male and female nudity. Soap operas owe much to Number 96, as its use of cliff-hangers, who-done-it mysteries, and scandals have become staples of the genre.

Number 96’s most infamous plotline was a bomb explosion at the apartment block, an attempt in 1975 to boost ratings. Screened on a Friday night, viewers had to wait until Monday to see who had survived.

Later attempts to gain audience’s attention included full-frontal female and male nudity and storylines involving the mysterious “knickers snipper”, “pantyhose strangler”, and “hooded rapist”.

The show spawned a film in 1974 and an unsuccessful (and far less solicitous) American remake. It also paved the way for explicit Australian television and film, including The Box (1974-1977) and the Alvin Purple series.

Airing at the tailgate of the Vietnam War, Number 96 reflected – and invariably helped shape – the cultural waning of conservative views towards sexuality and morality. The 1976 Racial Discrimination Act fostered Australia’s growing multiculturalism, reflected in Number 96’s diverse cast that included prominent Indigenous character hairdresser Rhonda Jackson (Justine Sanders). Additionally, at a time when homosexuality was illegal across Australia, Number 96 featured Australia’s first openly gay television character, Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham).

The show was careful to paint Don in a positive light during a crucial moment in Australia’s LGBTIQ history. By depicting a likeable, relatable gay man – often dating and in love –  at a time when the media demonised them as perverts, Number 96 helped change opinions and fuel conversations throughout Australia’s living rooms.

Prisoner (1979-1986)

692 episodes

The cast of Prisoner
The cast of Prisoner. Image credit: Network Ten

Decades before Orange is the New Black, soap opera Prisoner hooked both Australia and international viewers alike with the fights, politics and riots of fictional women’s prison Wentworth Detention Centre. Prisoner screened two one-hour episodes a week for six years on Channel 10, creating a high workload for actors, resulting in a revolving prison-door for cast members and plot lines.

A predominantly female cast, Prisoner revolved around prison top-dog Bea Smith (Val Lehman) and attempts from others to take her down, including the sadistic prison guard Joan Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) aka “the Freak”.

Although a soap opera, Prisoner featured some of Australian television’s most fully realised female characters, and the prison realities of violence, corruption, and lesbian communities were never shied away from.

Wentworth, a remake of the show, is currently airing on Foxtel.

A Country Practice (1981-1994)

1058 episodes

Molly Jones (Anne Tenney) in her final moments
Molly Jones (Anne Tenney) in her final moments. Image credit: Network Seven

A Country Practice ran for twelve years, following a medical practice Wandin Valley, a fictional regional town, with exterior shots filmed in Pitt Town, near Hawkesbury.  The show received 29 Logie Awards during its run, the third largest number of any television show.  

As many episodes were contained, standalone stories, the bevy of guest starts means that almost every Australian actor of then and now featured on A Country Practice. Alumni include Nicole Kidman, Delta Goodrem, Toni Collette, Simon Baker, and Paul Kelly.

Yet when people think of A Country Practice, they think of one person – Molly Jones (Anne Tenney). Molly passed away peacefully while recovering from cancer in the show’s most memorable and highly rated episode, watching her husband and daughter fly a kite in their paddock from afar before closing her eyes, the screen fading to black.

Throughout its run, A Country Practice aired on Monday and Tuesday nights on Channel Seven, although Channel Ten bought the show for an ill-advised final season featuring few familiar faces. In Seven’s final episode, a bush fire claimed the lives of many, and at the end of the episode, the survivors abandon the ruined town. Seven burnt and destroyed many of the sets in filming these scenes, leaving Ten’s season a flat note to begin on.

Neighbours (1985-)

7373 episodes (as of 25 May 2016)

Charlene (Kylie Minogue) and brother Henry (Craig McLachlan) on her wedding day.
Charlene (Kylie Minogue) and brother Henry (Craig McLachlan) on her wedding day. Image credit: Network Ten

After a slow start, Neighbours was sold by Channel Seven to Ten in its first season – now at 32 seasons (and counting), Neighbours is Australia’s longest-running drama show.

Neighbours revolves around the inhabitants of the fictional Ramsay Street, Erinsborough.  Exterior shots are filmed in the cul-de-sac of Pine Oak Court in the Melbourne suburb Vermont South, now a popular stop for bus tours filled with mostly British tourists.

Families come and go from Ramsay Street, but many characters and actors alike have remained or returned throughout the years.

Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne) , her sometimes husband Dr. Karl Kennedy (Alan Fletcher), Lou Carpenter (Tom Oliver), Harold Bishop (Ian Smith), Steph Scully (Carla Bonner) and Jarrod “Toadfish” Rebecchi (Ryan Moloney) have all been familiar names and faces on Neighbours since the 1990s.

Neighbours longest-running character is the somewhat sinister hotel mogul Paul Robinson, played by Stefan Dennis. Stefan has played Paul since Neighbours’ first episode in 1985, although he left the show between 1993 and 2004.

Neighbours alumni include Jesse Spencer, Liam Hemsworth, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Delta Goodrem, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie, Natalie Imbruglia, Alan Dale, Caitlin Stacey and, of course, Kylie Minogue.

Over 37 seasons, there have been fires, affairs, tornadoes, airplane bombs, tragic deaths, divorces, stalkers, and even an online web series called “Zombies vs. Neighbours “, which is exactly what it sounds like. Yet the most memorable scene is one of its earliest, when highschool sweethearts Charlene (Kylie Minogue) and Scott Robinson (Jason Donovan) married in 1987. Two million Australians tuned in. Nowadays, Neighbours numbers are less impressive, but a dedicated UK fan base keeps Ramsay Street on air.

Home and Away (1988-)

6430 episodes (as of 19 May 2016)

A title card of Home and Away
A title card of Home and Away. Image credit: Seven Network

Channel Seven soon realised they shouldn’t have sold off Neighbours, and attempted to come up with a distinct soap that could steal back audiences. Home and Away premiered in 1988, set in the fictional beach town of Summer Bay.

Since 1988, Home and Away has been filmed largely on location throughout Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Many British tourists make the pilgrimage to Palm Beach, the sandy suburb where much of the show is filmed.

In Australia, Home and Away has proved more popular than Neighbours – Channel Ten changed to a 6.30pm time slot in the early 1990s to avoid the competition. It’s also the most Logies Award-winning program ever, with 46 awards.

Some of the longest-running characters are Leah Patterson-Baker (Ada Nicodemou), Sally Fletcher (Kate Ritchie), and Irene Roberston (Lynne McGranger), although Alf Stewart (Ray Meagher) is the only character and actor who has remained on the show since the first season. Alf Stewart is remarkably popular on the internet for his frequent use of Australian slang, especially the phrase “flamin’ galah” and “mongrel.”

Many actors have passed through Summer Bay at the beginning of their career: Melissa George, Isla Fisher, Chris Hemsworth, Naomi Watts, Guy Pierce, Ryan Kwanten, Isabel Lucas and Julian McMahon have all featured on the show.

Blue Heelers (1994-2006)

510 episodes

The cast of Blue Heelers
The cast of Blue Heelers. Image credit: Seven Network

Between 1994 and 2006, the fictional rural Victorian town of Mount Thomas became Australia’s crime capital as cop show Blue Heelers saw murderers, serial killers, stalkers, robberies, and even bombs sweep through the country town. Exterior shots were filmed at the Victorian towns and suburbs of Wyndham, Williamstown and Castlemaine.

Blue Heelers revived the Australian-made police show genre, which was retired after an overkill of shows including Homicide (1964-1977), Cop Shop (1977-1984), Matlock Police (1971-1976), and Division 4 (1969-1975).

By focusing on a small town and new police officers, Blue Heelers blended the success of A Country Practice styled drama with crime-thriller plots and suspenseful action. The show focused on the pressure and intensity of police work for new and young cops, beginning with Maggie Doyle (Lisa McCune) moving to Mount Thomas. The show launched Lisa’s career – her character’s murder, aired in 2000, was one of the shows most watched moments.

The show shook itself up for its eleventh season with a bomb explosion in the police office. Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon (John Wood), who features in all 510 episodes of the show, was transformed by the trauma of the bombing and murder of his wife from a kind mentor into the shows vindictive villain. The dramatic change did not curb the ratings slide.

The success of Blue Heelers undoubtedly spurned on cop shows Stingers (1998-2004) and Water Rats (1996-2001).

Heartbreak High (1994-1999)

210 episodes

The cast of Heartbreak High
The cast of Heartbreak High. Image credit: Network Ten

Set in the fictional inner-city Hartley High school, Heartbreak High aimed to be less melodramatic and “grittier” representation of teenagers than front runners Neighbours and Home and Away.

A spin-off of 1993 film The Heartbreak Kid, the first season focused on Nick (Alex Dimitriades), the films titular teenage heart-throb, although it quickly expanded outwards.

Memorable characters include eye-brow ringed rollerblade bad-boy Drazic (Callan Mulvey), the runaway Mai (Nina Liu), Katerina (Ada Nicodemou), Nick’s car-part selling cousin Con (Salvator Coco) and the racist Rivers (Scott Major), who targets Vietnamese student Jack (Tai Nguyen).

Plot lines included the usual fare of high school drama, heartbreak, and an unusually frequent use of the phrase “rack-off” – mostly directed to the slightly sleazy Con. Heartbreak High was also invested in tackling racism, sexism, mental illness and disability in less didactic or heavy handed ways than other shows.

Since many of the characters and cast were second-generation Australians, Heartbreak High is notable for its representation of immigrant and multicultural urban communities, something which largely continues to be a rarity on television.

Heartbreak High was screened on Channel 10, then for the last two seasons, the ABC. Like many Australian shows, a strong international audience kept it on air during its last legs. Recently, the show has found a new wave of fans on the internet due to its 90s fashion, music, distinctive slang, and pathos-inducing heartbreak.

The Secret Life of Us (2001-2005)

86 episodes

The Secret Life of Us opening credit sequence
The Secret Life of Us opening credit sequence. Image credit: Network Ten

The Secret Life of Us was something of a cultural phenomenon when it first aired on Channel 10 in 2001. Focusing on the minutiae of the lives of young 20-somethings living in an apartment block in St Kilda, Melbourne’s beachside suburb, Secret Life broke ground for Australian television by focusing on the relatable and everyday; job failures, bad dates, and housemate dynamics.

The show followed Alex (Claudia Karvan), a doctor, and housemate Evan (Samuel Johnson), a writer, as they fell in and out of relationships. The show sustained a would-they-wouldn’t-they plot for Alex and Evan, who refused to act on their chemistry until one drunken and drug-addled kiss at Luna Park, when Alex was married to Rex (Vince Colosimo).

Other characters in the apartment bloc included Will (Joel Edgerton), actors Richie (Spencer McLaren) and Miranda (Abi Tucker), Tahlia (Pia Miranda) and Alex and Evan’s eclectic and somewhat chaotic housemate Kelly (Deborah Mailman). For many of the cast, Secret Life was their breakthrough role.

Similar to Sex and The City’s use of Carrie’s weekly column, Evan narrated the show with his novel-in-progress, along with interjections from Kelly. The show’s use of voiceovers, naturalistic(ish) dialogue, simple plots, location filming throughout Melbourne, and un-moralistic depiction of casualised drug use created Secret Life’s distinct tone early on as an intimate and insightful peek into the characters’ lives.

By the show’s forth and last season, all characters bar Kelly and local bartender Simon (David Tredinnick) had left the show. The show dovetailed in ratings; to fans, it wasn’t the same show without Evan.

In addition to being a new kind of drama on Australian television, Secret Life is notable for featuring a fully fleshed and nuanced Indigenous character, Kelly, who existed outside of plot lines that explicitly revolved around race.

McLeod’s Daughters (2001-2009)

224 episodes and telemovie

The title card of McLeod's Daughters
The title card of McLeod’s Daughters. Image credit: Nine Network

McLeod’s Daughters follows Claire McLeod (Lisa Chappell), who inherits her father’s farm Drover’s Run with sister Tess (Bridie Carter), who reluctantly returns from the city with plans to sell her half of the farm.

The country show was filmed entirely on location at Kingsford, a 55 hectare property north of Gawler, South Australia. Channel Nine bought the property in 1999. The property was built over 30 years and was finished in 1856, adding to the dilapidated look of the struggling Drover’s Run.

In season three, Claire dies – Tess continues to run the farm in her sister’s memory. The cast changed continuously: where at its peak McLeod’s Daughters was Australia’s most-viewed home-grown show, the ratings began to slide from season four onward. A more soap-opera approach was taken as new McLeod’s were introduced, steering the show away from the outback hardships that it originally focused on.

Love My Way (2005-2007)

30 episodes

The cast of Love My Way
The cast of Love My Way. Image credit: Fox8

Love My Way was something of a spiritual successor to The Secret Life of Us, created by Secret Life producer John Edwards and actress Claudia Karvan alongside Jacquelin Perske. Graduating from the throes of Secret Life’s share houses, Love My Way considers the weights and responsibilities of 30-somethings.

Set across Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Love My Way detailed a family dynamic rarely, if ever, shown on Australian television – the non-nuclear happy divorcees. The show followed divorced couple Frankie (Claudia Karvan) and Charlie (Dan Wyllie), who split custody of their daughter Lou (Alex Cook). The show traces the complicated and tangled web of relationships, examining how the markers of success – love, marriage and wealth – rarely match their idealistic, simple depiction.

Actors Asher Keddie, Brenan Cowell, Sam Worthington, Justine Clark and Gillian Jones also featured on the show.

Love My Way was the first Australian drama series made exclusively for pay television, running across different channels on Foxtel during its three year run. The show could extend upon Secret Life’s slice-of-life style without fear of censorship – explicit scenes, drug references, and naturalistic dialogue created believable characters.

Love My Way’s influence in Australian television can be seen in the short-lived show Spirited, and Offspring, which also stars Asher Keddie.