Each week, the highlight of my television viewing is Ten’s Puberty Blues. The network may be struggling but this is Australian drama at its best. There hasn’t been a series of this calibre on Australian screens in years. The performances are rich, raw and powerful. The script is intelligent, compelling and convincing. The direction is clever and the cinematography stunning.
Puberty Blues delivers an honest account of growing up in NSW in the 1970’s. Everything from script to screen is outstanding, but this intelligent drama offers more than just entertainment. It highlights how many things have changed in the past 30 years, and how little has changed in other ways. It explores many facets of family life; how parenting has changed over the years, but how many family struggles remain the same.
There is so much we can glean from this show about how far we’ve come in society and how far we still have to go.
The writers have gathered a collection of finely nuanced characters, of both genders and a range of ages. Most of the characters are struggling with relationship issues and dissatisfaction with the direction of their lives. It looks at issues of infidelity, sex, drugs, and tangled emotional lives.
It boldly tackles teenagers’ sex lives head on, as well as their fractured relationships with their parents. These rich characters are nuanced and convincing. Even the most unlikable character, Ferris Hennessy played by Rodger Corser, shows moments of vulnerability and remorse that make for compelling and empathic viewing.
What makes this show so fascinating is how true it is to the era it represents. In many ways, parenting in the ’70’s and ’80’s was a lot more carefree. They had a more relaxed approach to bringing up kids and living. The children were not actually the centres of their lives. Drink driving was as de rigueur as Iced Vo Vo’s and tuna mornay.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting that drink-driving laws are a bad thing, or seat belts for that matter, but there was an air of casualness about how they lived their lives. They went to the pub for dinner, drank too much and had roaring dinner parties. Nowadays even drinking in front of our kids is shunned and we are a generation of parents preoccupied with putting our kids’ needs ahead of our own.
Puberty Blues offers a very real and, at times, confronting portrait of family and community life. It looks at the values, expectations and aspirations from the perspective of teenagers and from parents. It also shows the somewhat subtle shift in expectations of women and the emergence of feminism.
Claudia Karvan is nothing short of brilliant as Judy Vickers, school principal and mother. She is desperately lonely in her marriage, struggling to form a meaningful connection with her teenage daughter, and grappling with her husband’s infidelity. Her struggles mirror that of many women today. There’s a fabulous scene in which she describes being “sick” of everything she must think about in the family.
“I am sick of making sandwiches. I am sick of cooking dinner. I am sick of thinking about everyone else by myself,” she announces to her husband. It is easy to identify with this sense of being overwhelmed. While our expectations of men may be greater today, gender roles still apply and women are still largely the keepers of the family.
Then there’s Gary, played by Sean Keenan, and his story is perhaps the saddest to watch. Gary is a sensitive teenager, struggling to escape his fractured family life. His greatest fear is turning out like his dad – an unfaithful, misogynistic low life! In one emotionally charged scene he breaks down to his father: “I’ve been sad in that house my whole life” he shouts, unleashing unfiltered emotion and anger. His angst is hard to watch. Each episode he inches closer to self-destruction. Suicide seems like his only escape, but he clings to life by a thread.
As a generation of parents we are more attentive, gentler and communicate far better with out children. And yet depression amongst teenagers remains alarmingly high.
This particular storyline makes for powerful and uncomfortable viewing. It’s a stark reminder of how deeply teenagers feel things; how we must never ignore or dismiss their emotions, and how we must always be open and available to them.
As a generation of parents we are more attentive, gentler and communicate far better with out children. And yet depression amongst teenagers remains alarmingly high. I am a long way off from the turbulent teenage years in our house, but if anything I want to be more available to them during those years.
I oscillate between thinking parenting was harder in the last generation and thinking that we have it harder now. In some ways, we are more stressed, more anxious and more pressured than ever before. But in other ways, there is greater gender equality, women are not “expected” to be the home-keepers, and we are more attuned to our children’s needs.
I don’t have the answers but Puberty Blues is a show that makes me think. In many ways it is quite a dark show, but it’s heavily dotted with humour and it juggles tone beautifully. It makes me laugh out loud and it moves to me to tears. Is it is intelligent drama at its best.
Are you watching Puberty Blues? Do you think parenting has changed a lot in this generation? What storyline resonates with you most?
The final episode of season two of Puberty Blues is scheduled for Wednesday, May 7 at 8:30pm on Network Ten. You can catch up at Ten Play.
Michaela Fox is an Australian writer, blogger and the mother of three young daughters You can read her musing on motherhood at Not Another Slippery Dip.