2012's most talked about TV

New Zealand's Got Talent's Tamati Coffey and Clara van Wel
New Zealand's Got Talent's Tamati Coffey and Clara van Wel

It hasn't been the best year for television in New Zealand. Current affairs has lost its currency, there's been a distinct lack of quality drama and to compensate? Yes, we got The Ridges. On this, and much much more, here's the Sunday Star-Times' review of the year in TV.

The brain drain

For many, 2012 will be seen as the year local TV's brain shrank alarmingly, as any show that required the viewer to have two brain cells to rub together was relegated to a ridiculous time slot or axed entirely, presumably to make way for such unedifying fare as The Next Big Fat Family Challenge (TV One).

|Nowhere was this depressing anti-intellectualism more evident than in the National Government's decision to cease funding fledgling public service channel, TVNZ 7. With thought-provoking local shows on politics, current affairs, arts and culture, the channel had evolved into a free, state-funded educational resource. But it was too brainy by half, and - given that there were no ads - downright socialist! Clearly, it had to go, and it did.

Current affairs

Current affairs also fared badly in 2012. The standout shows this year were TV3's Campbell Live, Maori TV's Native Affairs, and TV3's Media 3, which, ironically, had just moved across from the recently euthanised TVNZ 7. Elsewhere, times were grim for viewers looking for thoughtful investigative journalism.

TV One canned the admittedly dire Close Up and chopped in half its nominally "flagship" current affairs show Sunday, to make more room for sword swallowers on New Zealand's Got Talent. TV2's 20/20 became steadily trashier, diluting any serious journalism with cheap "freak of the week" segments and celebrity puff pieces, and it was also announced that TV3's excellent 60 Minutes would move to Prime, which has no pedigree as a serious news channel.

The cast of ABC's The Slap.
The cast of ABC's The Slap.

Shop till you drop

 Another sign that mainstream television was borderline brain-dead in 2012 was the establishment of Sky's "all ads, all the time" Shopping Channel. With its inane scripts, fumbling ad-libs, inept product demonstrations and pervasive sense of commercial desperation, the channel was surely the biggest insult to viewers' intelligence since the steaming pile of poo that was The GC. Still, in its palpable desire to hawk off shabby old tat to an audience that should know better, the Shopping Channel at least provided the perfect metaphor for the TV scene in general this year.

Speaking of The GC

 In 2011, NZ on Air granted funding for the working-titled "Golden Mozzies" which, apparently would "explore emigration from a Maori perspective and how Tikanga Maori supports them as they adapt to life in a new country". In May 2012, what we actually got was a bunch of bronzed, oiled vacuous young men and womeN with a made-up language that made no sense whatsoever. But, despite its inanity, The GC rated well for TV3 with its hate-to-love-it-appeal drawing in far too many viewers than it had any right to.

The same can be said of The Ridges - whether or not Sally and Jaime were going to get their own prime-time TV show was much speculated. Despite most of the country crossing their fingers in the hopes TV execs would see sense and can the show before it started, a six-episode series hit screens in early September. The show revealed a whole lot of nothing and social media users went out of their way to make their feelings known, a lot of it less than complimentary.

A much better bet for TV3 was the homegrown version of The Block. Its not-so-subtle product placement wasn't enough to deter an audience - the show consistently drew in more than 400,000 viewers, peaking at more than one million for the tense two-hour finale. Competitive alpha-type contestants Ben and Libby Crawford came out on top, with their house selling for $157,000 more than reserve, scoring them an extra $80,000 in prize money. TV3 has confirmed there will be a second season of The Block NZ in 2013; no word yet on The GC or The Ridges. Keep those fingers crossed . . .

Who's that Girl?

Quirky comedy New Girl's winning formula of ludicrous scenarios balanced with a this-could-actually-happen-in-real-life feel made for refreshing viewing. The comedy is always crisp and the characters don't feel like they've been rolled over from another studio lot with just a change of clothes and a new name.

Jessica Day (played by an endearing and riveting Zooey Deschanel) is the catalayst of most of the absurd situations in the show. In the second season, currently screening on Four, she's tackled unemployment, rocky relationships and maintained close friendships with her flatmates Nick, Schmidt and Winston (all well-acted and worthy of their own humorous storylines), as well as with her model best friend, Cece. Despite the rom-com sounding plot, New Girl's comedy has broad appeal. Creator Liz Meriwether has done a sterling job crafting these characters and their weird world and the offbeat yet relatable storylines keep me coming back each week.

Happy Homecoming

The best thing about Homeland's (TV3) second season? The fact it aired in New Zealand the same day as in the US. Fans had only to avoid internet spoilers for a matter of hours, rather than the months and months which usually go by between American and NZ air dates. But, the six-time Emmy award-winning show hasn't gone unscathed by the critics, with many debating the quality and believability of the plot.

Yes, of course it can descend into the ridiculous at times but, providing you go into each episode suspending your disbelief, it's still one of the best-acted, best-directed, best-produced series we've seen on TV in a while. Some have grown weary of Claire Danes "sad trout" face and Damian Lewis's tiny-mouthed sweaty hysteria; I still can't get enough of it. The confirmation of a third season is welcome news to me but the rumours it might stretch to seven seasons leave me slightly uncomfortable. You can have too much of a good thing, something TV bosses often seem to forget.

Slap happy

 Based on the 2010 novel by Christos Tsiolkas, Australian series The Slap (TV3) was an understated highlight of the year for me. Some reviewers dismissed it as merely an overwrought soap opera, but in its slow, careful examination of the repercussions one simple act - the slapping of a naughty child at a barbecue - could have for the wider social circle, The Slap had much to say about the tenuous nature of our social and familial bonds. Buried racism, sibling rivalries, strained loyalties, cultural misunderstandings, cocaine, infidelity, self-righteous hippie parents - this show had it all, as seen from multiple perspectives across eight well-acted episodes. Once the proverbial manure hit the Xpelair, tension ramped up, and we found ourselves in the middle of a modern-day morality play that forced the viewer to align themselves with various protagonists as they ducked and dived for cover.

Crashing the birthday parties

While local long-runner Shortland Street (TV2) celebrated its 20th birthday in May this year with glitzy parties and a feature-length episode involving a dramatic helicopter crash, Kiwi viewers finally got their chance to watch the spectacular 50th birthday episodes of classic British soap Coronation Street (TV One). Screened in Britain in December 2010, fans were chomping at the bit to see the special episodes in which a tram crashed off the viaduct to the street below, leaving Molly Dobbs and Ashley Peacock dead and many others fighting for their lives. Coro continues to have a strong fan base in New Zealand, but it seems unlikely they'll ever get their wish to shorten the gap between here and the UK. Here's a suggestion: How about TV One plays it every weeknight at 7pm in the hole left by Close Up? Or, failing that, Sky TV could buy it from TVNZ and play it on Prime? Just putting it out there . . .

Talk talk

 OK, there's no denying Aaron Sorkin's highly anticipated The Newsroom (SoHo), about a US cable TV news show, contained roughly 23,578 more words per episode than was strictly necessary. That many of these words were expounded in self-righteous, overblown epistles of "let's save the world by making worthy television" speechifying didn't help either. So why am I so eagerly awaiting season two? Because, once you have a chance to digest some of its more salient messages, The Newsroom does have a point to make and, for the sake of brevity, it's this: That news and entertainment just aren't the same thing. I'll be back as well to see if Maggie dumps the reptilian Don for Jim. And yes, I'll be back because I still love Sorkin's The West Wing so much that I'm just not ready to give up on him yet.


With its third season, many viewers were left disappointed with the talent on offer in this year's MasterChef New Zealand (TV One). It was hard to give a flying fork for any of the contestants, with many of them coming across as blander than a stale sandwich. Chelsea Winter was the overall winner but it didn't really seem a fair choice, seeing as she'd been involved in a cheating scandal and scraped through elimination by the skin of her teeth on a few separate occasions. The overcooked building up of constructed drama, and the excessive use of recaps after each ad break often had me reaching for the remote and, if it were not for favourite judges Josh Emett and Ray McVinnie, I might even consider giving next season a miss altogether.

London calling

 After the seemingly never-ending pomp and circumstance of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations, we had yet more cool Britannia to savour in 2012. Over two weeks we watched more than 10,000 athletes hurdle, hurl and heave their way to victory in the London Olympics which free-to-air Prime TV dedicated their entire schedule to. Despite the whirling speculation and cynicism in the lead up to the opening ceremony (sheep in the stadium? and fake rain in London?), director Danny Boyle's unfolding tale of the history and important cultural aspects of Britain gained mostly favourable reviews. And the Spice Girls reuniting for the closing ceremony was a talking point for ages.

But the biggest stars were the athletes. New Zealand was triumphant 13 times, with our team bringing home six gold medals, two silvers and five bronzes. There was shotput controversy; there was Oscar Pistorius, the first double leg amputee to compete in the Olympics; Usain Bolt proved he was a showman on and off the track when he posted photos online after partying with the female Swedish handball team in the wee hours. But maybe the biggest surprise of all was the Queen taking part alongside James Bond for an opening skit. We were amused.

Best served cold

 If Gossip Girl and The OC bore a love child it would be Revenge (TV2). The show is bitchy TV at its best with heavy drama and highly fraught emotions centred around ruining people's lives. Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) arrives in The Hamptons one summer but it soon becomes clear she's seeking more than just the prime real estate. Turns out Emily's father was wrongly framed for a crime and sent to prison for life. The blame lies with the high-society circle in the Hamptons and rather than letting bygones be bygones, Emily dedicates her life to destroying those who betrayed her father. Each week Emily reached dangerous levels of destruction and the extremes she went to were shocking. Look forward to another season where the suspense will reach new elaborate heights.

Musical chairs

 Another year, another deluge of singing competitions. While Simon Cowell is well and truly nestled into his X-Factor judging chair, the panel on American Idol has had a shake up. It was the final season for Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.

No longer will we see those luscious locks, glamorous wardrobe and expert manicures on parade - and that's just Tyler. Idol stalwart Randy Jackson will be joined by Keith Urban, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj for season 12 next year, which will screen on Prime, not its usual home of TV2. There are rumours of catfights between the two divas, which I hope is true because after a decade of the same old routine, Idol is becoming rather stagnant. And if I had a dollar for every time Randy uttered "yo", "dawg" or "it was a little pitchy" I'd be able to fly over to Los Angeles and buy him a thesaurus. Speaking of overuse, Cowell is still flaunting his favourite clingy white T-shirts. He got comfy on X-Factor (TV3) this year alongside fellow judges, music mogul LA Reid and singers Demi Lovato and Britney Spears, who, really, were plonked there for public intrigue (Spears) and to attract younger viewers (Lovato). Does Simon really take them seriously?

Then there's The Voice (TV2), where the judges got to sit on swivel chairs and spin around when they heard the voice of a contestant they wanted to coach through to the finals. Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera were on the US version, while Australia had a decent international lineup of Seal, Joel Madden, Delta Goodrem and Keith Urban (now being replaced by Ricky Martin).

No doubt next year will bear the same concoction of desperate, teary fame-seekers and predictable judging comments, but it's fun to sit in front of the TV and heckle all the same.

And let's not forget 2013 will also bring us our own local version of X-Factor on TV3, with Dominic Bowden as host and Stan Walker so far the only confirmed name in the judging panel; and another round of TV One's New Zealand's Got Talent, which in 2012 became the most successful local show of the last 10 years.

A Girls thing

 Getting off to an annoying start for many readers, Girls (SoHo) built to a compelling and melancholy finish worthy of its hype. All the smartypants, post-hipster analysis of the show was worth enduring for that opening scene where Lena Dunham's protagonist, Hannah, gets the financial cut-off from her fed-up parents. Everyone who hates entitled 24-year-olds (a group that includes entitled 24-year-olds, by the way) cheered. Season two will screen in New Zealand on Sky TV's SoHo channel in the new year.

Missing another bedtime

 Every week I vowed, would be the last. No more staying up past my bedtime on a Monday night (no MySky or Freeview in my house) to watch the next, ever sillier episode of TV One's Missing. The plot was full of holes, and sometimes extras walked through the same scene more than once, but for 10 weeks I was glued to a late night couch, wondering when Cliff Curtis's American accent would veer to the Kiwi and Ashley Judd would trip on her cork wedges (every retired CIA agent turned florist's footwear of choice).

Why? I think it was the scenery. Paris, Rome, Dubrovnik, Vienna and Sean Bean. In no particular order, obviously.

More Choice? 

One encouraging addition to New Zealand TV this year, however, was the Choice channel. Initially available only on Freeview, it also launched on Sky later in the year. Privately funded by Top Shelf Productions and dubbed a "lifestyle and entertainment" channel, there is a fair share of tat in the regular lineup. But, often, there is some gem of a show to be found.

So far this year I've enjoyed dramas and specials presented by or starring Dawn French, Alfred Molina, Richard E Grant, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. Here's to more Choice in 2013. 

--Grant Smithies, Kate Mead, Stephanie Holmes, Angela Walker, Hank Steuver, and Kim Knight.

Sunday Star Times