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Who Will Fix Australian Race Relations? Reality TV Will!

Joe Nunweek moved to Australia recently, and found their reality television focused on national self-improvement. This is as insane as it sounds – but it’s working./

For better or worse, New Zealand’s reality TV outings have stopped short of addressing “the big questions”.  Our flagship takes on the overseas formats (Idol, NZNTM, MKR) are typically blinders. Give us a fish-out-of-water premise that tries and teach us something about race, class or culture, though, and we’ll do something weirdly tentative (Make The Politician Work) or confine it to Māori TV where no one it might challenge will ever see it (the excellent, underheralded Songs From The Inside).

Leave it to the bold, brassy Aussies to overcome the cultural cringe. The past few years, SBS has been pumping out big-budget reality TV as educative force, gamifying the social documentary into a series of trials and ordeals with a moral, and pushing year-topping ratings along the way.

Recently, two series of Go Back To Where You Came From sent half a dozen Ockers each to the Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan to challenge some awful views on asylum seekers, and it was great.

Now they’re going in again, and I’ve arrived here just in time for launch. First Contact, a three part, three-hour behemoth, sets out to address the country’s fraught relationship with its indigenous people. SBS, broadcasting elder statesman Ray Martin and celebrity narrator Hugo Weaving make six white Australians sleep on the floor, get stuff on their faces, eat turtle, and go behind bars under the premise of “travelling to the heart of Aboriginal Australia”.

More successfully from a reality TV production point of view, it’s created one of the greatest monsters in the genre’s history, the kind of talent you couldn’t edit into being.

The array of participants is solid – you’ve got Jasmine, the solo mother; Marcus, the Manly surfer dude; Alice, the natural therapy hippie who thinks First Peoples have much to teach us about alternative health. And then there’s Sandy, a 41-year-old mortgage broker from Newcastle, the only person who seems to enter the experience serenely confident and solution-oriented.

“If Aboriginal people are spending dole cheques on booze, don’t give them dole checks,” she affirms. “You build them houses, they just burn them down… they can dance and sing and look hot while they do it, but when it comes to brains, white people have better brains,” she counsels sagely. “You think it’s racist? I don’t fucking care.” QED.

First Contact’s Aboriginal producer, Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films, gets the last laugh with the final product. It starts with montages of the contestants staggering through the set of Survivor: Outback (“tested in extraordinary circumstances… their beliefs challenged”) before Martin plays them and the audience by sending them 3,000km back the way they came (“You’re about to travel to the heart of the largest Aboriginal population on Earth…South Sydney.”)

Housed up to start with successful, aspirational Redfern families, the television’s uniquely awkward and engrossing. Anxious Twitter liberals (your boy) would be unfailingly polite and unedifying – this cast blurt out widely-held myths (“Is it true you get paid more to be on the dole than me?”) and get them swiftly and fairly corrected from the source.

Whenever an Aboriginal person is talking, Sandy wears an expert solemn ‘listening’ face. Left to her own devices, she’s throwing her toys and refusing to sleep on the mattress of the middle-class couple who’ve taken her in. “I know what happens on those mattresses, them sleeping in it with their sweat and drinking and partying. I’m not doing that.”

It’s horrible, but the camera crew must be silently “yessing”. In an hour, Sandy joins the lineage of extraordinary Australian creatures who have briefly, fatefully intersected with the media – Noeline Baker of Sylvania Waters, Tim “Sharky” Ward, Party Boy Corey – and sent the country reeling.

And so it goes. It’s reality TV alright – the cultural reckonings are balanced out with lots of more visceral scares (“to reach the next location, the six must travel by single-engine plane – but Jasmine is terrified of flying!”) and typical outplay-outlast-outwit squeamishness (eating turtle, gurning). But it’s also staunchly polemical, making a kind of populist sense that has to be seen to be believed.

And then, Sandy’s gone. Game of Thrones-shock death style, she walks out in Ep 2 after the six are directed to join a community night patrol in Alice Springs, and she doesn’t come back. This is good in some ways: her larger-than-life garbage has made it hard for quieter participants to assert themselves, and the audience spends more time listening to the Aboriginals we meet rather than waiting to see what she’ll spew up next.

But it’s hard not to feel a little robbed when you find that she hasn’t turned up to the hour-long reunion panel at the end. “Sandy couldn’t be here tonight,” the host explains, like she’s an estranged former child actor from Step By Step. But the rest of the cast are chastened and transformed, the tweets along the bottom earnest and affirming about the programme’s mission. “I was a vessel,” surfer bro Marcus explains, “The purpose was to live through me or learn through me on this show.”

It’s the most meta the genre’s ever gone.

First Contact may not age well. Its reference to taking on the “Aboriginal problem” is already cloying and offensive by 21st century standards, it spends a bit too much time on the tired Booker T Washington/Bill Cosby “oppressed can haul themselves up” riff, and while Sandy is one-in-a-million, the end result is an outrageous villain the folks back home can define themselves as being better than very easily.

But the sheer chutzpah of Australia in striving to make reality TV a teachable moment (one million viewers!) is something NZ could learn from. Predictions for 2015: anyone who goes to our broadcasters or funding bodies with a similar proposal in hand (pro tip: swap out Weaving for Sam Neill) will cream it.

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