Is there a greater waste of Australian talent on TV than Seven’s limp new Jessica Mauboy-led soap The Secret Daughter? Mauboy, a pop star who got her start on Australian Idol and went on to star in the immensely popular film The Sapphires, had this series built around her skills and personality, so naturally there’s a strong musical element.
Apart from that, there’s not much going for it.
Mauboy plays Billie, a country pub singer, who meets Jack Norton (Colin Friels), a wealthy hotelier from Sydney who has travelled to the country seeking his long lost daughter. Could Billie be that daughter?
Jack has his own dysfunctional, very white-bread, entitled family, so we can see right from the start that there’s a clash of cultures being set up.
The first episode was written by Justin Monjo, an experienced and talented TV writer, and directed by the wonderful Leah Purcell. Both are hamstrung by a completely uninspired plot, but Monjo doesn’t exactly imbue any of the dialogue with life or any great detail.
None of the characters are particularly distinctive, not even Billie’s hapless, trouble-plagued father Gus (David Field), nor any of the colourful supporting townsfolk characters. (The writers should have taken note of the vivacity and nuance of Deborah Kennedy’s Doris Collins and Frankie J Holden’s Roy Briggs in A Place to Call Home.)
You can hear the wheels turning with a loud clunk at every turn and, despite Purcell’s best efforts to smooth some of that over, it comes across as just another B-grade soap. Purcell and Monjo pull every rabbit out of their hats in an attempt to inject some tension or stakes into the narrative, but it becomes impossible to care about any of the characters when the plotting lacks any real surprises.
Mauboy can act, there’s no doubt about that. She has great sincerity on the screen and seems to have a strong natural sense for bringing dialogue to life. Unfortunately, the whole performance feels a little passive and needs a massive boost of energy.
Not that that’s a problem in her musical performances, which are the clear highlight of the first episode. But they’re not even integrated in a particularly interesting way.
This is a show that either needed a major overhaul or to have the plug pulled long ago.
I wrote just last week that Australian network TV was short on original ideas. With its musical elements and promised cultural clashes, The Secret Daughter had the potential to be something quite special, but it’s so uninspired and clumsy in its execution it just feels like more of the same.
It’s been a long time since the dramatic landscape on our major networks felt this depressing (as my colleague Luke Buckmaster observed less than a month ago, there’s plenty of exciting work happening, just not on major networks). It’s enough to make you wish for a return of Seven’s entirely competent (if entirely dull) Packed to the Rafters.