It would be tempting to make a lot of resolutions after watching Wake in Fright on Channel 10 on Sunday.
Don’t drink (particularly not beer), don’t drive where there are kangaroos, don’t play Two Up and above all, NEVER visit small, dying towns in the Australian outback.
But the biggest temptation of all is to call this the best new Australian drama this year.
Because, from the first moment, there’s a sense of a scarily inevitable hiding to nowhere for schoolteacher John Grant (Sean Keenan is perfectly cast), as he farewells his outback class to take up a new job in Sydney.
Within hours of leaving, he hits a kangaroo with his car and his nightmare journey has just begun.
This terrifying journey engages the audience because of the skill of the production team, which takes menace to a whole new level.
A passing taxi driver stops and she offers two options – $400 trip to the nearest truck stop so he can hitch to Sydney or a $20 ride to Bundanyabba.
“It’s the best little town on earth. Once you get to the Yabba, you never want to leave.”
From the moment he arrives in town, Jack Grant is like a bunny in the headlights. He is open to manipulation and temptation from every quarter.
Cop Jock Crawford (David Wenham) leads the charge, offering free beers and an introduction around town – notably to the local RSL where there’s a $10 steak, more beers and the Two Up game.
Nobody drinks beer slowly in the Yabba and John is quickly drunk enough to ignore his reservations and join the game. It’s one of the most engaging scenes in the episode, where the energy, excitement and sheer addictiveness of the win is captured perfectly.
It’s all downhill from there.
By the end of the first episode, he’s gone from receiving Christmas cards from adoring kids to being stripped naked, in debt, on drugs and being pursued by local thugs. He has no escape from a hellish bad dream in the middle of the Australian desert.
The $400 trip to the truck stop would have been a bargain.
This series could have gone badly wrong in the wrong hands but it’s beautifully cast, well scripted, imaginatively shot and very well directed. A terrific music score drives the tension.
There’s a standout cast. Alex Dimitriades is just delicious as Evan ‘Doc’ Tydonas, who spends much of his time in the nude, wearing his barbecue apron and living in a caravan.
Gary Sweet plays Tim Hynes, the desperate local real estate agent trying to flog houses in a dying town. Robyn Malcolm is his fearful and tense wife, Ursula.
Underplayed performances and a sparse script allow the story to star and grip the audience.
It’s no obstacle if you haven’t read Kenneth Cook’s iconic book or seen the 1971 film, regarded as one of the greatest Australian films ever. In fact, you’re probably better off because you won’t waste time wondering which one is best.
This first episode at least is simply excellent television drama in its own right.