The Network

The Network.

FREE TO AIR

THE NETWORK
Tuesday 8.30pm, SBS One
★★★★

The Mohseni family escaped Kabul in 1983 and came to Australia. In 2001, when NATO forces toppled the Taliban government and retook the capital, the family returned, along with thousands of others, to help rebuild their country. What makes the Mohsenis' journey especially interesting, though, is the way in which they decided to contribute to Afghanistan's future: by helping establish a free, independent media. First that meant an FM radio station in the Western style: music, a bit of news, a bit of chat. In short, a bit of normalcy. Then came Tolo TV, the network of the title, and that's what the bulk of this hour - made by Oscar-winning producer Eva Orner - is about. Staffed by a mix of locals and expats, including several Australians, Tolo set about trying to provide what most of us take for granted: an ordinary sort of television station screening kids' shows, dramas, light entertainment and news. But in Afghanistan everything is different. One of the most popular shows in the country is Sesame Street, redubbed and with local segments filmed using familiar streets and faces. The kids adore it, of course, but all over the country adults are also using it to learn basic literacy and numeracy. A drama built around the work of indigenous security forces is partly funded by the US Embassy, with the dual purpose of entertaining the masses, and of building confidence in local police and military. Everyone involved in the travel show had to make the decision about whether they would genuinely travel the country - and risk being shot or blown up - or restrict themselves to the safer districts. (They chose the former.) While plenty of local women work at Tolo, as soon as they leave the office and go home, life is not at all ''as seen on TV''. It's a fascinating window into the bewilderingly complex situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and a wonderful reminder of what a force for good television can be precisely because of (not despite) its populist nature. But while this is unquestionably an uplifting story, it ends on a dark note.

The Agony of Christmas with Lawrence Money and Stephen Curry on ABC1. Image supplied by ABC TV publicity.

The Agony of Christmas with Lawrence Money and Stephen Curry.

HOMELAND: FINAL
Monday 8.30pm, Ten
★★★★

I just don't get the hating that season three of Homeland has attracted. Nothing was ever going to compare to season one, but for some of us, it was season two, especially it's tail end, that was Homeland's low point. The relationship between Carrie and Brody was certainly enlivened by the fact that both of them were mentally unstable, but it wasn't enough to build a thriller around and, although there was literally a bang to close out the action, dramatically it kind of fizzed. This season, on the other hand, has been a cracker, not least because the focus both broadened and sharpened. Yes, Dana Brody is annoying, but the fallout from her father's actions was an important part of the narrative to pursue and it was handled with intelligence. If some people felt cheated by the end of act one reveal (Saul had planned Carrie's incarceration all along, with her acquiescence), for others of us it had real wow factor. What's been most satisfying is the way this time Homeland has abandoned the fixation with telegenic protagonists that can plague series of all stripes, and allowed the story to expand to embrace both other players, and larger ideas, especially the corrosive effects of spy craft on everyone it touches.

THE AGONY OF CHRISTMAS
Wednesday 8.30pm, ABC1
★★★☆

Behind Mansion Walls
Kerri-Anne Kennerley

Behind Mansion Walls with Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

As well as being enormous fun, Adam Zwar's quirky interview series has started to form an important social document. Read as a whole, aunts, uncles, life and Christmas certainly make an entertaining tome, but they're also a genuinely enlightening document of Australian life and culture. A wide variety of Christmases are discussed here, in Agony's inimitable style, from traditional family get-togethers to the adult who refuses to give an inch to the kids in family sports and the endless drives between mum's house and dad's house to make sure everyone gets their ''family'' Christmas. There are lots of familiar touchstones and lots of laughs, but in the way of this series, there's also someone to remind us that however hellish a family Christmas may be, it's better than not having one.

UTOPIA
Wednesday, Thursday 9.30pm, SBS 2
★★★★

Not even slightly Christmassy is this weird, black fantasy thriller. It's created and written by playwright Dennis Kelly whose CV includes Spooks, the comedy Pulling, and Tim Minchin's Matilda the Musical. He is clearly a bloke of diverse tastes and offbeat humour and his various interests collide in the tale of a graphic novel (The Utopia Experiments), its prophetic powers, its cult fan base and the evil forces at work to prevent the novel's even more prophetic sequel from reaching the public domain. It's certainly a very strange piece of work and a very violent one, but when you're game enough to have your eyes open, it's a visual treat. The performances are uniformly excellent and the plotting is fabulous. SBS is screening this in two big chunks, with three episodes tonight and three tomorrow night, and it's a sure bet plenty of people will want to keep watching and watching and watching.


PAY TV

Documentary
BEHIND MANSION WALLS

Wednesday 7.30pm, CI
★★★☆

Leaving the Nine network after so many years has given Kerri-Anne Kennerley a new lease of life. She's clearly having a ball on The Project, and she is in her element here giving us the lowdown on not so much the lifestyles of the rich and famous as their dirty secrets. Which is to say, this documentary series is all about wealthy people murdering each other. It's smartly produced in the CI style: tidily structured, with expert talking heads intercut with sturdy if uninspired re-enactments illustrating the crime du jour. Holding it all together is KAK, speaking to us from a glamorous room and in this episode - for reasons that remain unclear - sitting down to a breakfast of eggs and toast dressed in an evening gown. (Maybe a big night out?) The murders themselves are rather interesting. There's a nice sense of the procedural and a good collection of forensic evidence without getting bogged down in detail, and the stories have plenty of twists. The narration is also nicely judged: just the right measure of hyperbole and of archness but never over the top. In each instalment we get two cases, and tonight that means an up-and-coming lawyer and his ''nail technician'' wife who meets a grisly end, followed by the Russian multimillionaire who emigrated with his family to escape the Mob, and found himself coming to grief through other means entirely. If all these crimes ultimately come down to a fatal collision of lust, greed and stupidity - well - perhaps there's a lesson there for us all.

Reality
EMBARRASSING BODIES DOWNUNDER: FINAL
Tuesday 9.30pm, Lifestyle You
★★★☆

I swore once was enough but, despite the significant eew factor, I also came away from the first episode of this factual series with a lot of respect for it. After the recent documentary on ABC2 about women having their private parts remodelled largely because they had no idea what "normal" ones actually look like, I decided the more we see of un-airbrushed, unmediated genitals on the telly, the better. That's not the only subject addressed here, but Dr Christian does hold a comforting workshop on penis size, while Dr Ginny gets some ladies to have a good hard look at their girly parts. Everything is approached with calm, frank, good humour, and we're left with the impression the doctors have done a great deal of good, both for their patients and for public health in general.

Lifestyle
PADDOCK TO PLATE: FINAL
Wednesday 8.30pm, Lifestyle
★★★☆

The New England district of NSW looks as glorious as everywhere else Matt Moran has visited, and once again this episode is packed with interest and incident. First stop is a wheat farm, hardly the stuff of culinary excitement. But this is durum wheat, and both Moran and we learn a lot. Next is the ultimate in paddock to plate: a Sydney chef who's moved home to Narrabri to run both a small farm and a restaurant, with one generously supplying the other. If you have the energy (and the right location), it's a brilliant way to do business. Finally Moran returns to the old family farm to reconnect with some folk from his youth before preparing a fabulous turkey for Tamworth's Christmas in July celebrations. I'll be using that ham-fat trick this year for sure.

Fantasy/Drama
NEVERLAND
Saturday 4pm, Universal
★★★☆

There's something about fantasy and Christmas that seems a perfect match, from pantomimes to those wonderful Terry Pratchett films, and this sophisticated interpretation of Peter Pan feels just right for the festive season. Going behind, above and beyond the original story, the first episode in this two-part mini series (they screen back to back here) deals with Pan's origin story and has a decidedly Dickensian feel. The second is firmly in Neverland, and while it takes the action in the original story in all kinds of directions it always stays true to its sometimes violent and rather melancholy heart.