If critics were horses, then beggars would ride fine steeds. As it is, critics have no more influence than stable-hands. While the many, many critics of The Shire were busy mucking out their woe with their nasty little shovels, the program itself earned thoroughbred numbers in its key demographic.
Of course, respectable ratings are alone no defence for the quality of television. If this were the case, then A Current Affair would win awards for journalism instead of the unofficial title of Most Stories on Bacteria in Shopping Mall Sushi in History. But, A Current Affair is horrible television. Whereas The Shire is actually quite good.
To dismiss The Shire is to miss out on one of the more compellingly "Australian" moments of recent television history.
Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not, for a minute, suggesting that the chicken-tikka coloured hyper-narcissists we see on our screens are any more "real" or representative of Australia than A Current Affair is representative of news. The cast has been cherry-picked from thousands of Lexus showrooms and the "soft script" is actually about as soft as cubic zirconia earrings. What is real and what is Australian about The Shire is its fantastic failure to seem in any way believable.
Take, for example, the Completely Natural™ sexual tension between protagonists Mitch and Gabby. If you've not seen the program, these two are sort of like the star-crossed Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina of the Sutherland Shire; except, you know, without the Tolstoy. Their attempts to reignite the flame of human passion are about as genuine and heartfelt as my Burberry scarf. "I really want ya back, Mitch," says Gabby with all the arresting warmth of Shopping Mall Sushi. "Right," says Mitch.
No one can take this seriously. No one.
Thanks to its beachside locale and peculiar fascination for sun beds, The Shire has drawn comparisons with Jersey Shore. Actually, it is not much like this justly reviled pile of poop and has much more in common with The Hills; a fascinating US "dramality" program that, almost despite itself, offered us real flashes of dramatic brilliance. Like The Shire, this soft script was so inflexible that sometimes it shattered in pieces. There are moments, such as the race between Sophie and Vernesa to have more facial-filler than actual face, that cannot be seen as anything other than parody.
It is so artificial, it's actually beyond artifice. It is so unbelievable, we actually stray into moments of belief. Earlier this week, my associate John Birmingham called this "It's So Bad It's Good" TV. By extension, it's also So Fake, It's Real.
This is especially true in an Australian context. In a TV landscape cluttered with borrowed formats and imported television, there is so little space for us to have anything we can genuinely call our own. Sure, SBS makes a good fist of it; particularly with its locally-produced comedy. But in terms of broadly watched programs, there is nothing that says anything about Australia.
The evidence that MasterChef, for example, is locally produced lies solely in its accents. This show is about group hugging and the hospitality industry; two arenas in which we fail as a nation. The soaps simply sell an idealised Australia and, really, Q&A does a similar job of flattering us into thinking that we're something that we're not.
But The Shire shows us one element of what we are: very, very bad at following instructions. This program is really about our failure to take authority seriously; no one onscreen seems to have their heart in it. Being Lara Bingle is not at all interesting, by contrast, because its star actually gives the (terrible) format her all. These guys on The Shire are so disrespectful of production standards, they're almost like reality criminals. This is the Underbelly series one of dramality.
The cast of this program really can't help itself but fluff every line. Nothing is uttered with conviction and nothing, despite fears from Sydney's south, is said about the Shire itself. What is said is all that can be said in the very limited range of formats local producers will deign to produce. And that is: Australians don't take themselves very seriously.
It's easy to make fun of this program. It's easy to call it "shallow" and "stupid" and "cheap". It is as easy, in fact, to do this as it is to make fun of a so-called "bogan". Being a snob about The Shire and the people it purports to represent is win-win for critics: it requires no intellectual strain AND it makes us seem especially clever.
What might actually make us bit more clever is to look through this brief, gaudy window for a glimpse of ourselves.
The story So fake, it's real: why The Shire is good Australian TV first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.