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The ABC’s Pine Gap is a stinker

Australia is a wretched sunbed maintained by debt and founded in unspeakable acts of racist brutality. Even so, sometimes the old girl does us proud. One day, I’m all “this is a culturally inert toilet remarkable only for its willingness to be shat upon by empire”. And then the next? Well. There are few among us who could not be thrilled by the sense of nationhood delivered so intensely by the ABC Netflix co-production, Pine Gap.

Oh, lordy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not any good. No. The thing reeks. Don’t believe a thing you read in The Guardian or the Herald  about the usefulness of this Sexy Spy Drama as a tool in our understanding of global power. I’ve endured three, possibly four, of its episodes and as a guide to international relations they were together slightly less useful than a Chicken Parmies of the World pub menu. (Hawaiian is unnervingly good.)

If I were inclined to “binge”, per the suggestion of ABC TV and Netflix, on this show, I would almost certainly throw something at the telly.

If you have genuine wish to learn about the goings-on at Pine Gap, don’t watch Pine Gap on ABC TV. Listen instead to this top-drawer ABC Radio report, co-authored with The Intercept and based on documents liberated by Edward Snowden. And, sh, don’t let it get around that RN’s Background Briefing continues to deliver actual journalism. They’ll cancel the thing. I’ll have nothing to listen to on Sunday mornings but for secular songs of praise to the US State Department. Maybe another cooking program by Annabel Crabb.

Anyhow. This is the accidental genius of Pine Gap: it’s a stinking turd laid in a tepid bath by a toddler. It’s just such a childish attempt at manufacturing consent, I feel almost affectionate toward it.

Compared to, say, Homeland or to NCIS or any other US TV program that seeks to romanticise state power, it’s a wreck. Laborious exposition about the ANZUS treaty in episode one sounds like it was written as a Wikipedia entry and it really is so bad, I think even Noam Chomsky would laugh. I did, and not unkindly. I was just so happy to know that Australians are somehow stubbornly incapable of writing good propaganda.

And, this is propaganda. Perhaps the authors of this series don’t know it to be propaganda. Certainly in interview, Greg Haddrick, the sine qua non of middle-brow Australian TV writing, seems to believe that Pine Gap is a genuine equivocation on the future of world power. It is, however, a very clear restatement of the state-approved sentiment we see on ABC TV news constantly: China is “inscrutable”; the US is imperfect but basically decent; Muslim terrorists are the very worst kind of terrorist. Oh, and this old favourite: Aboriginal people are deeply spiritual.

If you have genuine wish to learn about the goings-on at Pine Gap, don’t watch Pine Gap on ABC TV.

There’s a fucking parfait of a subplot in Pine Gap in which an Arrernte father and daughter talk about being an Arrernte father and daughter all the time. I imagine the nation’s most compassionate Caroline Chisolms will eat this up with a spoon. Any person gifted of any insight beyond the white unconscious, however, will wish to barf on this depiction of Black life only as a discussion of Black life and nothing else, ever. 

I mean, shit. It doesn’t take a whiz in race studies to see that this is fucking insulting. These “minority” characters talk about nothing but their minority status. They function within Pine Gap as “Our First Australians”. You know the sort of thing: mystic and timeless nobles who can See Through the petty games of White Man etc.  If I were Aboriginal, I would perhaps be quite aggrieved by this nth shackling of my identity category into the service of supremacist narratives. If I were inclined to “binge”, per the suggestion of ABC TV and Netflix, on this show, I would almost certainly throw something at the telly. It’s just so tedious to see this lazy racialised plot device activated again.

Much of the other laziness in Pine Gap, though, is sort of fun. The dialogue in which characters “argue” about the legitimacy of the US hegemon is just such a poor simulation of debate, I kind of love it. About every 15 minutes, you get some twit or another say something clunky about, “Well, you know, if you are going to call China bad, you better call the US bad as well!”  The entitlement of the US to commit its mass murders and mass surveillance is not questioned at all and the “questions” that are posed are just so fabulously hollow.

The “minority” characters in Pine Gap  talk about nothing but their minority status.

The question offered in ABC TV promotions for the thing also contains its own answer. “Are your secrets safe?” it asks, as though any person with a faculty for thought would not very much prefer to consider a problem like “does the bear shit in the woods?” No. Of course my secrets aren’t safe. My metadata is mandatorily held for two years and can be accessed by a range of government agencies and my private details are exchanged by the oligarchs of Silicon Valley. The extent of the moral and real-world atrocities of these state and private data thieves are not yet known, although it is known that any person who attempts to reveal even a bit lives the life of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. Whatever the case, Pine Gap will tell you dick all about how safe your secrets are not. 

Pine Gap will tell you only to love the USA like your racist uncle: for all its flaws!

But, you won’t buy it, because our local screenwriters and producers have not yet learned how to sell it. For which we can be glad. 

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Pine Gap will premiere on Sunday October 14 at 8.30pm with a double episode on ABC TV and with all episodes available after on ABC iview.  

44 responses to “The ABC’s Pine Gap is a stinker

  1. I found some of the dialogue laugh out loud stuff. And the scenery was at least accurate.
    This reviewer is just demonstrating her capacity to put down a not bad comedy. Her vitriol was contrived to get up someone’s nose. I wonder who it was.
    I hope the Oz humour keeps sticking its head up in unlikely places!
    I will certainly be watching next week.

  2. I struggled through Sunday night’s show and was totally bored, but I’ll keep watching to see if there is any character has a moral bone in them and walks out of the place.

    1. it wasn’t that bad. Just a 6/10 instead of 9 or 10 out of 10. Still better than reality tv crap. The last 10 min. was the best when some plot turns were revealed. Probs would be better if it was set at Pearl Bay and Diver Dan was an analyst! But if it brings about a national conversation about the base, how much tax payer money goes into, do the US genuinely tell us everything and how exposed is the Alice if a nuclear war breaks out etc then it is a good thing. One thing Aust. doesn’t do well is spy tv. I have written screenplays on the side (even be a finalist in several comps). I wrote one called ‘d-notice’ about a journo whose friend is killed but she is not allowed to publish her friends name or details. She finds out a d-notice was on her name and so the unraveling and intrigue begins. An Aust. producer told me that it would never work in Australia and even though the script was good, the execution would fail.

    1. Have we forgotten how to just enjoy a TV show without having to find significance in everything. I found faults but overall it was an enjoyable experience. I’ll be tuning in next week. Oops…..sorry……I’m supposed to binge but hey, I’ve never been a conformist.

  3. I’m utterly miffed by all the haters and find it hard to believe we actually watched the same thing. I saw it at the ADL film fest and thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was.

  4. pretty sure you cant just go out with your spook buddies after work and talk about work stuff like the characters did. Show had promise but a little contrite. I rather watch a pine gap doco on how Whitlam got sacked for wanting to have a commission into pine gap as exposed in the book/film ‘The falcon and the snowman.’

  5. Well after this hilarious putdown I just had to watch. Helen you are dead right. Pathetic is probably the word to use. Let’s write a drama about a facility we know little about but where we are unable to create any dramatic insights. A terrible idea followed by a terrible script all commissioned and overseen by ABC staff. You don’t have to make a drama to realise it is a turd. You just read the scripts and exercise your professional judgement and don’t commission it if it stinks. But after a succession of these amateurish dramas from the ABC it seems heads never roll. Let’s hope the new ABC CEO actually audits poor creative performance and knows a thing or two about the process of program creation across the whole gamut of TV and makes some new appointments with skilled people. I won’t hold my breath.

  6. With great anticipation (after the endless promos!) we settled down to watch the ABC make a meaningful contribution to socially serious entertainment……….We became unsettled after about ten minutes when we thought our smart TV had been taken over by a Play School parody of adults being serious.
    For anyone trying to follow the exposition a flow chart would have been useful, as two dimensional characters made one dimensional conversation about third dimensional events. If there had been anything or anyone interesting to follow we might have persevered but sadly life is too short.
    I don’t know who their test audience was but I hope that others find it more rewarding than we did.

  7. After the divine Ms Lumley (AKA Purdey, Patsy) left me at the borders of the PRC, I snoozed into PINE GAP. Actually watched it right through. At least the Indigenes were not called ‘First Nations’ and the 60000 years had not been inflated to 80000 years looking at the stars (how many supernovae would they have seen??).

    Not being must exposed to the slick US style West Wing/NCIS productions (I prefer Portillo mincing his way around Britain by rail); I thought the characters and story were interesting enough to watch right to the end…..an end which lost all credibility with the Aussies making up a story about the fleeing Rohinga firing a $50000 missile and hitting a private jet over Burma as the hook for next week.

    And you know folks, the writers needed a fake story to deceive the dumb Yanks, so they make up a really dumb story so that the less dumb Yanks don’t fall for it!! HR is on to it folks; the dumb story is supposed to make us Aussies look dumb, when they alone are on to the real baddie; that muscle bound part Chinese guy at the golf driving range (or is it that Moses character who had a Sherlock-like seance on the computer screen)? Damn, I have to tune in next week…..

  8. Sometimes ABC promo’s make some good serials seem pretty cliched or banal, like The Code and even the fantastic Mystery Road. But at least they give some idea of what to expect and generate some enthusiasm by showing snippets of highlights which will presumably be better in context. The promo’s for this seemed extraordinarily dull and pedestrian and if those were the highlights… Looks like I avoided a bullet. Especially taking the time slot formerly taken by the superb Rake, this looks like it should have been relegated to a late evening slot at best.

    1. I liked Helen Razer when she was JJJ Breakfast, but shes gone a bit too radical in middle age. I watched Pine Gap and thought it was actually pretty good. I have something that Helen didnt have , and that was a security clearance to do some work at Pine Gap, unfortunately for anyone that wants an insite, I also signed a bit of paper preventing me saying any more than what I have.

  9. Just watched it. And think perhaps Ms Razer fell asleep or was under the influence of some sedative drug. Again, she proves an unreliable witness.

  10. nearly finished watching the first episode on the ABC tonight and I am bored bored bored…. was hoping it might start to get the shit together but now see this is unlikely….

  11. I worked at the base in the 90s and I’m pretty sure you cannot dress like that on the TV show. Personally I’m finding this funny to watch and the amount of bs this is doing

  12. I grew up with paranoia about Pine Gap. America was our bête noir, still is. I was expecting to be fascinated, outraged, enlightened, or just sucked in by the drama. Righteous indignation would have sufficed.
    I just didn’t expect it to be stupid.
    What happened to the actors?
    The landscape is more animated. It is exceptionally beautiful, but probably not intended to be the main attraction.
    The Thunderbirds puppets were more convincing. Jacqueline McKenzie, Kelton Pell, et. al. have had the life sucked out of them.
    Once I might have blamed the CIA; now I blame zombies.

  13. I’m watching now and the voices and accents of the female actors are dreadful – phony American, nasal and hard to decipher. Aren’t Aussie actors taught to speak clearly with good voice projection??

  14. I’ve just turned it off after 20 mins…the dialogue is cliche , the acting limp…but most of all it’s the virtue signalling of the casting choices that make it unconvincing and inaccessible…hell they even managed to sneak in a sly bit of gender violence…

  15. Helen razer that was so unexpected I am watching it now and just think it’s so crap and not even the right / real names of presidents and prime ministers and the portrayal of the blacks was so patronising – omg I need you in my life – I will follow up your commentary’s – used to listen to you on double j xx

  16. Watched first episode and it is so cliched you would think it was cut and pasted from US tv.
    To much explaining and not enough intrigue.
    Pine gap is not that secret, you can’t walk around but you can fly overhead at low level.
    It’s not even a “prohibited” area according to CASA.
    Cast all young and beautiful, in reality they are all aged, geeky beauracrats.

  17. I suppose it can only be what Helen seems to think is crap. We dont know what it does, the joint facility is BS. To set a series at that site is weird. We cant come any closer to the real site than a few miles. There I was up on a ridge looking at the radomes through binoculars about 5 miles away about 100 years ago. It was set up originally to monitor Soviet missle launches . Thats so long ago – when the US thought Russia was some kind of threat.
    I think if they nuke Iran some of the command and control will be via Pine Gap. Which makes Pine Gap a “first strike” target if / when the nukes start flying.

  18. I’ve only seen the promos but enough to deduce that Australian screenwriters still don’t understand the concept of “on-the-nose” dialogue.

  19. I haven’t seen the show but I have read all the archival material on the communications facilities including Pine Gap.
    As an earlier poster noted it’s a highly technical operation and you might as well try and build a drama around a micro wave tower it’s that dry.
    Don’t worry about your personal data being filtered through Pine Gap: none of us are interesting enough to waste the bandwidth.

    This sort of facility is found the globe over with a sibling station in Yorkshire.

    I’ll give it a miss.

  20. Thank you, HR, for giving us a way to approach this – as a window into what Australian content will consist of if our ABC is nerfed any further.
    I am so grateful that we don’t produce good propaganda. May all out Aussie bullsh!t filters remain healthy!

  21. Cannot believe a review could contain such venom. Feel better now Helen? Have an opinion? We all do. I will be sure to watch tonight. I will not review your looks in a similar manner. john

    1. Wow, “John”. She gave her opinion and your feelings were so hurt that you brought her looks into the matter. Were you involved in the production? Why else would you resort to an ad hominem attack? Relax.

  22. Not seen it, probably won’t but we all know its basic sin. Too nice to the USA eh Helen? Doesn’t demonise the west enough eh Helen? Doesn’t make the aborigines victims of genocide eh Helen?

    1. Oh dear, a little bit of shit on your liver eh, Dave? try detoxing during what’s left of Octsober. You’ll sleep better and feel much less cranky! After you’ve done your detox, can I also suggest that you take a look at the recent, very well-researched Newcastle Uni’s Massacre map project ( https://www.newcastle.edu.au/newsroom/featured-news/mapping-the-massacres-of-australias-colonial-frontier ) to edjumacate yourself about the history of this country. …..just saying…

  23. On fire, Raze. So funny. Thanks for saving me the rage of watching.

    Nice to see an Australian writer mention Assange’s name too. You’re one of a very few.

  24. Sadly, I picked it as a dud from the preview shorts. Wrapping a whole lot of unrelated social plot around what is basically a technical operation. I doubt whether the personnel at Pine Gap actually actually see any of the traffic or engage in deep and meaningful discussion about the morality of it all. BTW, I haven’t watched it..

  25. The Background Briefing program Peter Cronau made last year told quite another story. Not PR about what Austrtalia is actually doing, or a sop to our American partners, but a very thoroughly researched, investigative look at what is going on. It’ll still be available somehow.

  26. It sounds like the ABC have made this to give Dutton, Abbott, Abetz et al the Scheißes. Perhaps part of its cunning plan to steer them away from RN? I’d be well impressed if it did elicit a chuckle from Chomsky. That would make my life.

    Way too many people are too deeply invested in and enamored with Western supremacy. Our inability to understand our culpability, even if it’s just a result of our ignorance of it, is dangerous.

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