Frontline (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, and Rob Sitch, 1994-1997)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Frontline.

criterion logoBased at an unspecified commercial network, the Australian television series Frontline goes behind the scenes of the ratings-obsessed world of commercial current affairs.  Covering everything from the use of hidden cameras, foot-in-the-door bullying interview techniques, and checkbook journalism, the comedy’s three seasons takes a satirical look at the egos, the dubious practices, and the occasional hypocrisy of a medium that purports to objectively present the news.  By rejecting the three-wall, laugh-tracked sitcom format and utilizing a realist camera-style and cameos by actual Australian political and media personalities, Frontline was a TV phenomenon at the time of its airing and remains as hilarious and as topical now as it was when it debuted nearly twenty years ago.

Disc Features:

  • All three thirteen-episode seasons, digitally restored with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Select episode introductions featuring original cast members and creators
  • Behind the Frontline, John Tabbagh’s hour-long documentary on the making of Frontline, recorded in 1995 during the show’s second season
  • Promotional spots
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring an interview with Frontline guest star Harry Shearer

It can’t be easy for the Criterion Collection to license television programs for release with a wacky “C”.  Highly marketable or critically regarded TV series are infrequently licensed to third party distributors such as Criterion, as rights owners like major American networks or entities like the BBC usually have their own home media divisions intent on wringing out further profit from their products.  There are rare cases where this is not true, as in the case of Hill Street Blues.  To the chagrin of many fans, 20th Century Fox released only two seasons of the acclaimed series on DVD and stopped due to disappointing sales, leaving 5 more seasons of the show unavailable to home viewers.  Assuming the Collection was interested and could obtain the rights, a new problem is then posed – how is Criterion to collect and market successful and long-standing television series?  Would it release a complete run of Hill Street Blues in a 45-disc set and with a $400 price-tag, or would it release 7 separate seasons over a number of years?  Likely for these challenging reasons and others, Criterion’s TV titles have been limited to television specials, movies, and mini-series.  To release a full-blown TV series, Criterion would need a lauded and marketable program in keeping with the status of the Collection, a manageable number of seasons/episodes to prevent the physical product and the price from becoming unwieldy, and a potentially willing rights-holder inclined to license their product.  If that all sounds daunting, a perfect situation might exist in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Frontline, a 30-minute situation comedy that ran in the 1990s for 3 13-episode seasons.

The brainchild of the Australian comedy troupe/film and production company Working Dog, Frontline is a half-hour TV situation comedy set in the world of a current affairs news program aptly named Frontline.  Central to the program is its host Mike Moore (Rob Sitch), a selfish and dim-witted news celebrity under the delusion of being an admirable, hard-working, and principled journalist.  Backing Moore (and sometimes backstabbing him) are Frontline’s on-air reporters, the amoral and publicity-conscious Brooke Vandenberg (Jane Kennedy) and the wily and complicit Marty Di Stasio (Tiriel Mora).  Frontline’s production staff figure prominently as well, including principal cameraman Stu O’Hallaran (Pip Mushin), morally flexible segment producer Kate Preston (Trudy Hellier), and conflicted line producer Emma Ward (Alison Whyte).  A rotating cast of executive producers appear through Frontline‘s 3 seasons, each trying to exploit various news items for maximum ratings and manage the competing egos that boil behind the scenes.  The great New Zealand actor Bruno Lawrence played the show’s original executive producer Brian Thompson, but tragically died of lung cancer following the first season.  Frontline‘s second season starts with Thompson’s firing and his replacement by Sam Murphy (Kevin J. Wilson), while the third season commences with a new executive producer retiring and Graeme Prowse (Steve Bisley) assuming the reigns.  This change marks one of many discernible shifts between the second and third season, as Mike assumes his influence resulted in the change at executive producer, emboldening him to believe his own delusions of grandeur and indulge in even greater diva-like behaviours.  Mike’s change in character is in keeping with the third season’s treatment of Frontline as an established success against other current affairs shows, no longer in nightly ratings battles with its competitors, but the show’s host becomes much less lovable by the third season, openly plotting against colleagues and even friends.  In this regard, Frontline seems to shift its third season away from the underhanded tactics news programs use to obtain material and gain ratings and toward the office politics and egotism that occur off-camera, providing a different view of the strange tensions that result from this merger of news and entertainment.  No where is this more prevalent that in “Addicted to Fame”, where Mike, jealous of the success of weather man Geoff Salter (Santo Cilauro), has his friend’s show cancelled.

Frontline employed an innovative production strategy, writing and taping an episode in a single week.  This accelerated schedule allowed Frontline to base episodes on contemporaneous media developments and encouraged a collaborative effort between Cilauro, Sitch, Kennedy, and co-writer Tom Gleisner, as well as with the remaining cast.  Frontline feels texturally authentic thanks to Frontline studio content being taped at broadcast quality, while office and other footage was shot on Hi-8 video by Gleisner and Cilauro, then transferred to film and back to video to achieve grainy, documentary-style images.  Further authenticity is added by Frontline‘s plots often being derived from actual media controversies, cameos by actual Australian politicians and media figures, and allusions to existing TV reporters and hosts in the portrayals of Frontline’s talent (something denied by the show’s creators, but frequently cited by those outside of the show, particularly amongst the offended personalities who felt specifically lampooned).  There is no need to be familiar with Australian news cycles to appreciate Frontline however.  Current affairs programs are standard fare on television and the narcissism of its on-air talent and the sketchiness of its reporting practices seem universal.  As if demonstrating this point, Frontline‘s production strategy emulated the UK news-based sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-1998) and was in turn reproduced, along with the handheld documentary style, in the drier, more-jaded Canadian series The Newsroom (1996-1997, 2002-2005).

FrontlineFrontline is a comedy that relies heavily on a particularly trenchant form of gallows humour.  It’s staggering that the show manages to extract laughs from gun violence (season 1’s “The Siege”), media persecution and suicide (season 1’s “Judge and Jury”), racial prejudice (season 2’s “Heroes & Villains”), abortion (season 3’s “A Hole in the Heart”), or Aboriginal poverty (season 3’s “Epitath”).  It would be a mistake to read of Frontline‘s satirical vision and social commentary and assume that it merely amuses.  For as offensive as the underhanded tactics of the news programs are and for as disgusting as the unbridled selfishness of the show’s characters can be, Frontline remains hilariously cynical and Moore, as the pompous buffoon, is its crown jewel.  Its closest kin in the Collection would be Tanner ’88 (Robert Altman, 1988), but the breadth and sheer outrageousness of content over Frontline‘s 3 seasons likely outdoes Altman’s miniseries.  The ready availability of special features for a Criterion release likely graduates the program from an Eclipse set to a full spine numbered Collection title.  The Australian DVD packaging for Frontline seems ready-made for a Criterion release, looking like proper network promotional material for a current affairs show.

Credits:  Frontline did air outside of Australia, shown in the US on PBS as Breaking News and Behind the Frontline on cable, thereby avoiding confusion with the American PBS series of the same title.  The show has only been made available on hard media in its native Australia and only in bare-bones editions.  A quality release by the Collection would fill a notable gap and provide a platform to expose this award-winning series to television fans otherwise unfamiliar to it.  Its English language format leaves Frontline accessible to North American audiences and its verité style makes it appear contemporary, comparable to programs like The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, or Trailer Park Boys (albeit without the awareness or direct address components of those programs).  Selected introductions divided between the 4 members of Working Dog would allow for insights into the production, including the controversies that inspired Frontline plots and the public figures that make appearances on the show.  Behind the Frontline is a highly informative and entertaining documentary.  Its discussions of the program’s intentions, production methods, and challenges are so well represented that there is little need for any further supporting features.  Promotional spots would add some flavour to round out the Criterion edition.  Harry Shearer makes a guest appearance on season 2’s “Changing the Face of Current Affairs” as an American consultant tasked to overhaul the lagging program.  As reflected in Behind the Frontline, getting approval from the actor’s union to hire Shearer was a significant challenge and Shearer had reportedly passed on an opportunity the guest on Seinfeld in order to work with Frontline.  Being unable to find an Australian TV scholar to include as an essay writer and without knowledge of a suitable critic to speak as an admirer of the series, a booklet interview with the always forthcoming and genial Shearer seemed like a productive alternative and a positive means to connect the series to a recognizable American actor and comic.

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