Don’t wanna live in the city…. SeaChange and Nineties Nostalgia

I think you’d be hard pressed to name a show that captured the zeitgeist of late nineties Australia more than SeaChange.

The show was ostensibly a drama, revolving around city lawyer Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton) who moves from Melbourne with her two children to the small coastal town of Pearl Bay to be the local magistrate after her marriage breaks up. It was a drama of the best kind, with complex characters, lashings of humour, and some keen insights into the prevailing pretensions and preoccupations of an increasingly economic-rationalist society.

I was ten when SeaChange finished up on our screens, but that makes me all the more nostalgic for it. Interestingly, I have found this to be a common predicament when trawling the web for past reviews of the show. For us misguided millennials who’d rather be watching re-runs of a show from last century than staring at our iphones, the people of Pearl Bay felt like friends and family. I practically regarded Laura Gibson as my mother- they were eerily similar in their roles as modern superwomen trying to juggle children with a career. In fact, I deconstructed an episode in my year nine English class for a discussion on the representation of women in cultural texts.

Now when I watch it I am literally reliving my childhood. Our family had the box set and my siblings and I would watch the whole three series every Summer holidays. I also grew up on the coast in Perth, so for me it brings back the feeling of languid summer days and the smell of the beach. I am nostalgic for the way my family was united for fifty minutes of viewing pleasure every Sunday night, and for the serious question of where your loyalties lay when it came to preferring Diver Dan or Max Connors (as my grandmother would say, Max Connors can park his slippers under my bed any day).  It’s also good to hark back to a time when Sigrid Thornton could actually move her facial muscles.

But back to that nineties zeitgeist. If I recall correctly, I also claimed in my year nine English class that Pearl Bay was a microcosm of Australian society. Yet the show’s creators, Andrew Knight and Deb Cox, who have gone on to produce Rake and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries respectively, captured this snippet of middle Australia without writing any of the characters as overt caricatures, or turning the humour into farce.  Bob Jelly, the local mayor and real estate agent (played by John Howard), comes closest to caricature, but he is also central to the underlying social critique- he is always chasing dodgy real estate deals and is in perpetual danger of selling the town off to its rival shire up the river.

The parochialism of the townsfolk and their antipathy towards Port Deakin Council could easily be a metaphor for the internationalisation of Australian society that was occurring at this time. Pearl Bay represents a local community with a strong identity and tangible social capital- the complete opposite of the living conditions brought about by the whole-hearted embrace of economic rationalism and the global market that the nation had been living through for close to two decades. Having said this, the show was not moralistic, but had a literary quality underpinned by well-developed characters, smart dialogue, and showed us we could represent ourselves on screen without being cringe worthy. It poked fun at us without bashing us over the head.

Re-watching it now, I am pleasantly surprised at how current the show remains. Don’t get me wrong, the opening theme and the CGI fish are dated, and some of the outfits look like they were designed by Ken Done. The idea of a sea change is cliched now, and those baby boomers who headed to the coast in what Bernard Salt dubbed the “Sigrid effect” have gotten bored and moved back to the city. But the show still cuts through, probably because of the humanity at its heart; social commentary aside, fundamentally the show is about human relationships and the big questions which plague us all- where am I going, and what does it all mean?  I have been genuinely moved to tears in some scenes, and am getting caught up once more in questions like: will Laura ditch Warwick for Max? Will Angus and Karen ever get married? And when will that bridge be fixed?