With the most-talked-about TV of the moment mired in “wife” swapping (Married at First Sight) and “celebrities” in faux peril (I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here), the ABC is set to serve up a socially conscious antidote to the shame spiral that can result from bingeing on reality muck.
The Heights, filmed at ABC Studios Perth and in surrounding suburbs, is a 30-part, 30-minute serial drama that centres on residents of a housing tower in the fictional inner-city suburb of Arcadia Heights. Think Neighbours with grit, or Home and Away with less bikini-action.
Head of Drama, Comedy and Indigenous for the ABC Sally Riley said the show “will broach complex social issues faced in the reality of our lives today”, using a medley of characters, cultures, classes and backgrounds.
Riley told The New Daily it was important the program didn’t just pay “lip service” to diversity.
“The only way you can get diversity to feel authentic is to have people from those cultures telling the stories,” she said.
To achieve that, two-thirds of the core ensemble are from diverse backgrounds, including Iranian-born, Perth-raised actor Phoenix Raei (Australia Day), who plays Muslim refugee Ash.
“I had a lot of input in the nuance of the character,” Raei said.
“That’s a testament to the showrunner and producers; they were open to suggestions.”
The result? “There’s a lot of laughter and a lot of tears as well,” he said.
“I was surprised at how funny it was – and warm.”
Bridie McKim, who lives with cerebral palsy, applauded the production’s commitment to getting it right when conceiving her part.
“The show had a lot of disabled people on board even when writing the character,” she told The New Daily.
“As soon as I saw the script that really showed. I knew that when we were on set, that if I had an opinion about something or if felt something wasn’t right, I was always given the opportunity to say something.”
That type of representation matters, the NIDA student and triplet from Brisbane said.
“When I see an able-bodied actor play a disabled role, I just feel a bit sad,” McKim said.
“It’s very hard as a disabled person to see your identity as something people can just switch on and switch off and that can be seen as art because, to be honest, it’s not art. It’s my life. Now is the time and the place for there to be authenticity.”
Beyond inspiring audiences, The Heights aims to lift behind the scenes as well, employing 178 crew members, 84 speaking roles, 396 extras and with 30 per cent of the cast receiving their first TV credit.
“This could be a great training ground for people, almost like a technical school, like the old days where you can come up through the ranks,” Riley said.
“I truly believe that the ABC has a responsibility to grow new talent and for me, the best way to do that is through production. I’m thrilled with the way it’s turned out because you can feel that it’s real.
“We wanted to make something that had meaning and spoke about Australia today, the real Australia.”
The Heights starts on ABC on Friday, February 22, at 8.30pm