Posted On March 14, 2021
I completed a Mass Communications degree between 1993 and 1995. For two of those years – ’94 and ’95 – there was a sitcom on the ABC that parodied current affairs television. Its name was Frontline and, as you’d expect, it was weekly water cooler talk for us… if we had water coolers.
Looking back on the three seasons of the show now (it also ran in 1997), it’s incredible that while the surface items have changed – fashion, PCs look different, phones became smart, etc – the actual business of current affairs seems remarkably as unchanged and grubby now as it was then.
Put together by the now-legendary Working Dog Productions (made up of Late Show alum), the series follows a current affairs program on a commercial network with all the usual trappings; the front man who doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does; the bitchy and ambitious reporter who wants his job; and the journeyman reporter who’s over the hill in many ways and just wants to make his weekly pay doing something that’s so formulaic for him by now that he could do it in his sleep.
One of the joys of the series, if you were watching it at the time, is that it would take real-life people and events and work them into the parody. So in some ways, there was an echo of Drop the Dead Donkey in proceedings. And although that kind of thing is genuinely a joy, as people delight in recognising what’s being sent up, it could sometimes enter some pretty chilling territory, too.
One of the oft-cited examples is a real-life hostage situation where an Australian current affairs anchor called the hostage taker live on air, and also got to speak to the child hostages. One of his journalists, meanwhile, also landed a helicopter near the building the siege was in, despite a no-fly zone. The corresponding Frontline episode parodied this almost note for note and, when a second hostage situation occurs (not something that happened in real-life), their actions and interference have a shocking end, better suited to a TV drama, not a sitcom, yet the show pulls it off very well.
While the series remains consistent across the three series and this definitely isn’t a case of, “Gee, the first series was good then it went downhill…”, one notable change is the Executive Producer of Frontline (the fictional current affairs show being parodied, not the series itself), changes each series. This gives the leads a different boss to play off against, which makes for an interesting dynamic.
Another neat touch was the use of real-life personalities to add a surreal feeling to proceedings. Some of the names seem quite dated now, but tune in to see guest spots of varying lengths from Pauline Hanson, Noel Pearson, John Hewson, Pat Cash, Cheryl Kernot, Ben Elton, Bert Newton, Rosemary Margan, Amanda Keller, Anne Fulwood, Glenn Ridge, Glenn Robbins, Molly Meldrum, George Negus, Ian Baker-Finch, Harry Shearer, Merv Hughes, Don Burke, Sam Newman, and Stuart Littlemore.
Like Drop the Dead Donkey, which I mentioned earlier, Frontline remains very watchable, even without knowledge of its targets being top-of-mind. Sure, it was a bonus to know that this week’s story was parodying something that had been news recently, but watching it in isolation today still doesn’t remove the jaw-dropping tactics and skulduggery going on in TV. Something that the industry commented on at the time, and which you occasionally see TV people still describe as relevant today.
Like the best TV sitcoms, and TV series in general, Frontline knew when to get out of the pool. It’s three series are a great watch, but does it leave you wishing it had done five series? Ten series? That it got a reboot and came back to TV later this year? No. By the end of the third series, I think most of the jokes and reveals of how current affairs TV works are played out. Like most Working Dog productions, this one’s a winner, whether you were watching it back in the day or happen to hunt down a copy now.