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Great new TV programs still to air this year

The winter of our discontent is about to be made glorious spring by the TV networks finally pulling their fingers out. It's been the kind of August that tempts lovers of drama and comedy to go online and watch illegally, with the commercial networks sticking with tired old talent quests such as The Block Glasshouse, The X Factor and The Bachelor Australia instead of surprising us. Only the ABC has offered fresh entertainment, with Anzac Girls and Doctor Who.

But that is all about to change, as the commercial channels start their final push for audience share before the end of the ratings year.

When we asked every network to nominate their best five new offerings for the next three months, we were surprised by the quality of the material they'd been hoarding. Let's start with the best:

Party Tricks (Ten) is a glossy six-part politico-dramedy, in which Asher Keddie finds herself competing with an old lover (Rodger Corser) for the job of premier of Victoria. We know Keddie best as the scatterbrained Nina Proudman in Offspring, but here she's more in Ita Buttrose mode. We know Corser as a determined detective in Water Rats, Rush and Underbelly. In Party Tricks, both are more glamorous than we've ever seen them.

Gotham (Nine) is a new American series in which we see how the Batmyth originated. We'll meet the young Bruce Wayne, Penguin, James Gordon and Catwoman in the same brooding atmosphere as the Dark Knight movies. It's being fast-tracked to avoid online theft.

The Code (ABC) is a crime thriller about how governments and corporations can't be trusted, set partly in central Australia, with a cast of international Australians such as David Wenham, Lucy Lawless, Aden Young, Adam Garcia and Aaron Pedersen.


If you think The Code sounds star-studded, wait till you see Devil's Playground (showcase), a miniseries about corruption in the Catholic Church. It stars Toni Collette, Jack Thompson, Don Hany and Simon Burke (who plays the same character he played in the 1976 movie).

And if you think "reality show" is an insult, look at the way SBS makes the genre respectable. After the success of Go Back To Where You Came From, SBS is trying Living with the Enemy, in which people of diametrically opposite views are forced to live together for 10 days. The divisive issues include same-sex marriage; immigration; detention centres; hunting and animal rights; decriminalisation of marijuana; and Islam. As in any reality show, the participants scream at each other a lot.

The rest of what's next

In the "reality" department, Channel Nine promises a new season of Big Brother (where one of the attractions will be watching the swell of Sonia Kruger's baby bump) and Channel Seven has started spreading rumours about the B-listers likely to appear on Dancing With The Stars, which has been on the skids since Sonia Kruger left. My money's on comedian Paul Fenech and chef Colin Fassnidge.

Seven is also offering a new season of Beauty and the Geek and a Survivor-style game show called The Big Adventure, in which 12 people face exotic challenges to win lavish prizes (wow, that's never been done before). And in The Island (SBS), Bear Grylls drops 13 British men on a remote Pacific island for a month. They can't even call on the cameraman for help, because they have to film themselves.

In documentaries, the ABC is offering Brilliant Creatures, which shows how Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes left the "cultural desert" of Australia and found glory and vanity overseas. SBS is offering The Sixties, which celebrates the most interesting decade of the 20th century, and Crash Test Mummies and Daddies, about how new parents cope. Ten is offering Gold Coast Cops, about crimebusters amid the glitz.

For laughs, Nine will fast-track the new season of Australia's favourite sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, and Ten will fast-track Australia's second-favourite sitcom, Modern Family. The ABC is bringing back its hits of 2013 – It's A Date and Upper Middle Bogan – and cautiously reintroducing the Chaser team in a show currently known as We'll Have To Leave It There, but which may have a new name by October.

In dramas, Nine is fast-tracking Stalker (starring Dylan McDermott); and Seven is fast-tracking season two of The Blacklist. SBS's new dramas come with subtitles: In Her Skin, a Spanish "telenovela" that allegedly contains "mystery, love, gambling, gangsters, scandal and a psychic dog called Pacho"; and Salamander, a murder conspiracy thriller tackled by a detective from Belgium, who makes a change from Danes and Swedes.

Foxtel is fast-tracking new seasons of The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire and The Newsroom.

Ten is fast-tracking the fourth season of Homeland, which sagged during the third season but is now alleged to be like a whole new show. Brodie is dead (presumably), which means Carrie can get back into the field (Pakistan and Afghanistan). With any luck, she'll have defeated ISIS by the end of the year.

The networks are being cagey about start dates for most of their new series, but this is what we know so far (and this column will tell you the rest as soon as we know): Living With The Enemy (SBS One), September 3; Big Brother (Nine), September 8; Boardwalk Empire (Showcase), September 8; Devil's Playground (Showcase), September 9; Crash Test Mummies and Daddies (SBS2), September 10; The Sixties (SBS One), September 14; Brilliant Creatures (ABC1), September 16; The Code (ABC), September 21; The Island with Bear Grylls (SBS One), October 6; Salamander (SBS One), October 8.

Shiver me timbers

All the pirate stereotypes we know and love to hate came from one book - Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson - and two movies made in the 1950s, Treasure Island and Black Beard. Blame them for the wooden legs, the parrots on the shoulders, the skulls and crossbones, the eye patches and the talking in an English West Country accent.

The "Arr, arr, matey" stuff was an invention of the actor Robert Newton, who decided to sound like someone from Cornwall when he hammed up the charming villain Long John Silver. Johnny Depp chose to avoid that stereotype when he starred in Pirates of the Caribbean, but every other crew member on The Black Pearl – especially Geoffrey Rush - sounded as if they were in training for the Annual Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19).

Last week Foxtel started a series called Black Sails, set 20 years earlier than Treasure Island and starring as young John Silver our own Luke Arnold (best known as Michael Hutchence in the telemovie INXS: Never Tear Us Apart). But here's the issue: Arnold doesn't do the accent! He sounds vaguely English, but not at all West Country.

I asked Arnold how he had the nerve to mess around with the iconography. "Well, that's actually the whole idea with Black Sails. The genre has become this cliche stereotype. It's a very fun stereotype, but we're trying to go back to historically what was happening at the time. What were these men really like? We're demystifying that version of it in a lot of ways. We decided for this no parrots, no peglegs and no Robert Newton style arrrs."

In any case, Arnold speculates, the accent might have been meant to sound fake anyway – adopted by Silver ("a bit of a con man") to ingratiate himself with other sailors. Arnold thinks he might let the Newtonian voice develop over time.

At some point, Arnold anticipates, the writers will find it necessary to show how old Silver got his pegleg. "Hopefully we get to do this show for five, eight years or something, and links to the book will need to be plotted in. If we get to do the story for a few years, that leg will have to go somehow."

There's also the question of how John Silver got the "Long" in front of his name. Arnold is aware of an '80s porn star who used the nickname "Long Dong Silver", and in the early episodes of Black Sails, Silver is certainly very popular with the ladies.

"That might potentially be an obvious one, but it might be nice to do something a bit more obscure," Arnold says. "It's the first time I've been on a show like this where we are kind of making it up as we go along. The characters reveal themselves in certain ways over time. Maybe it could be about what he has between his legs, or maybe something else will come along where we go, 'Yeah that feels right for the character'."

Black Sails airs on Tuesdays at 9.35pm on showcase.

For a daily update, go to smh.com.au/entertainment/blog/the-tribal-mind.