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What NZ drama series can learn from Sunday Theatre

TVNZ 1’s Sunday Theatre is one of the oldest surviving timeslots in New Zealand television. Duncan Greive reviews the excellent Resolve, and looks at the lessons it contains for our struggling serial dramas.

Through winter, for a while time now, some of the most expensive television we make has aired. On TVNZ 2 and Three that tends to be opulent hour-long serialised dramas, the current iterations being Filthy Rich and Westside. On TVNZ 1, it’s an even pricier collection, at least on a per minute basis: movie-length Sunday Theatre productions, which in recent years have dramatised some of New Zealand’s most notorious true crimes.

Of course, it’s less the cost than what’s done with it – whether what is made passes NZ on Air’s test of holding “a mirror up to New Zealand and our people”. Westside is a funhouse mirror: exaggerated but entertaining while you’re looking at it. Filthy Rich has more a dated hotel reflection, all over-stuffed cushions and oppressive mood lighting. 

That of Resolve, which airs at 8.30pm tonight on TVNZ 1, is a mirror you’d find in any of our homes: unadorned, naturally lit, an honest reflection of what we are and have been. It tells the story of Chris Crean, played with heart and churchy soul by Pana Hema-Taylor, a New Plymouth born-again who agreed to testify against Black Power members running amok in his community.

For his troubles he received a rifle blast to the gut in October of 1996, dying the following day. Resolve tells the story of the months leading up to his death, along with what came after – a law change which ultimately made it easier for witnesses like him to come forward against difficult defendants.

Two worlds collide, each portrayed with a pleasingly unadorned style. Crean’s blissful domesticity, his three kids with another on the way, his washing machine repair and lawnmowning, his evangelical Sundays. Nearby, the Black Power headquarters, a slightly too-clean squalor but with both the fear and fury which governs their existence very palpable.

Pana Hema-Taylor’s Chris Crean and family as portrayed in Resolve. Image: TVNZ

We get just enough of each that neither ends up overpowering. Unlike the two-dimensional characters we’re used to seeing in serial drama, Crean is both impressively dedicated and fatally flawed. The gang members, meanwhile, are possessed of their own code – ruthless, but also scared out of their mind.

Diana Wichtel wrote memorably and accurately in her review of Filthy Rich and Westside last week that “no one in New Zealand drama is ever in danger of having to figure anything our for themselves,” and that holds true here. The cop heading the investigation asks his lawyer “why can’t people give their testimony in private?”. The reply comes, groaningly, “there’s no provision for that in the law.”

Yet such moments are far less frequent in Resolve. Instead we’re faced with a New Zealand which feels remarkably recognisable, from the two storey weatherboard state houses to the leather vests and mustard button-down shirts familiar to those who lived through the mid-’90s. This expertly-rendered environment – along with Karl Steven’s brooding score – give the eruptions of violence their visceral power.

The attack to which Crean agrees to testify is short, sharp and shocking. It stains the memory, lingering long after it passes on screen, and the helplessness it engenders over all who had proximity to it is well-communicated – a natural motivator for Crean, leading him onward toward the grisly fate we all know is coming.

Crean’s death occurs after 70 minutes or so, and in truth Resolve feels slightly over-long. This case, while heart-rending, might have been shrunk into a TV hour. But what I’d have preferred is if it had gone the other way: the same team taking six hours to really pore over the case, similar to the way they did for Dear Murderer last year. To give us backstories to the gang, to understand how they were made as well as we do Crean. To allow the law-change its own arc, and the trial a greater scale and tension. To allow the team at Screentime, which have now made a number of these productions to an international standard, the opportunity to find the right case and stretch it out.

If that were to happen, then perhaps we’ll finally have a true sequel to Outrageous Fortune: a locally-made and funded dramatic serial which grips the nation and tells us more about ourselves than we might be comfortable knowing. We can only hope it comes soon – it’s debatable how much longer NZ on Air can justify funding these productions. Yesterday the Herald published ratings numbers for the second episodes of Filthy Rich and Westside, showing each dropping 30% from the already poor week one figures – though Westside is excused somewhat due to its competing with the juggernaut Game of Thrones. Just 123,000 5+ viewers watched Filthy Rich – under half its average from last year. “It’s hard and getting harder,” said New Zealand on Air’s Allanah Kalafatelis, “but that’s not a reason not to do it.”

Only, that’s not true. At a certain point the marginal cost-per-viewer has to become unsustainably high. If we continue to make these very costly dramas and the audience continues to flee, we either have to see massive changes in commissioning and funding – the obvious move which never seems to happen – or we stop making them entirely. But if there’s room for another round, it should go to the team behind Resolve.

Read more from Duncan Greive on NZ TV: TVNZ is wrong about Netflix – it’s not a fad


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