Michala Banas as Amber in Upper Middle Bogan. Photo: Supplied
If you think the vision of Australia espoused by campaigning politicians before the federal election was out of touch with reality, consider the fictional country that exists inside our television shows.
For too long the Australia we've seen onscreen has been this amorphous, indistinct locale that encompassed the endlessly neutral suburbs that were home to Neighbours and Packed to the Rafters, with The Secret Life of Us and now Wonderland distinguished solely by their proximity to water.
These were places where everything was too white and too all right. When was the last time an Australian television family went through a genuine crisis - not the temporary threat of one - cased by their circumstances? The belief that Australia is an egalitarian society in which we're all essentially the same has long endured, and nowhere has it been stronger than on our television screens. Everyone was comfortable, and that should have been increasingly uncomfortable to watch.
Different class: Upper Middle Bogan provides a more real view of Australian culture than most Australian television.
In recent years, change has been incremental, and diverse. Audiences have shown they like to enjoy the blustery certainty that comes with great wealth, as successive shows about the business ventures of Kerry Packer have been bona-fide hits (with more to come), while pay TV dramas such as Tangle have delineated personal crises against a backdrop of moneyed privilege. Turns out members of parliament and property developers are human beings after all (especially if they're being played by Ben Mendelsohn).
At the same time shows such Paul Fenech's Housos, a raucously antic comedy set in the fictional suburb of Sunnyvale, have celebrated the dodges and adventures of an unemployed ensemble with one eye on the television and the other on their government allowance.
With its madcap segues, potent language and preference for lenses that distort already unvarnished images, Housos sets its phasers to shock. Although it's hard to imagine how anyone could be offended by a show that at heart is a genially triumphant fantasy; even when the junkies go on a thieving rampage things tend to work out for the best. The show resets every episode, like a video game starting over.
Robyn Nevin as Margaret Denyar. Photo: Supplied
It's difficult in this era of lecturing mining magnates, media ownership concentration, and decreasing housing affordability to see Australia as a classless society. But class on Australian television has only just started to appear, as if it's something that we wanted to leave to the British, who in ways either stupid (Bread) or stunning (Boys from the Blackstuff) have acknowledged the divisions in their country.
One of the best new Australian shows of the year manages to generate some terrific and telling humour from our social stratification. Created by the prolific (and improving) Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope, Upper Middle Bogan is the story of a doctor, Bess Denyar (Annie Maynard), whose manicured eastern suburbs life is upended when she meets her real parents, a McMansion-dwelling outer-suburban couple, Julie and Wayne Wheeler (Robyn Malcolm and Glenn Robbins).
Even in the opening credits, where Bess drives westwards through Melbourne's social layers, the comedy embraces differing visions of Australia. The friction is not purely economic, as the Wheelers are hardly poor (although as they say, you need a serious mortgage to get a five-bathroom house), but in the expectations and assumptions. The show uses obvious trends and simple signifiers of difference, but it shows how confused a flustered Bess is by the differing lives on offer.
A good portion of the pleasure is watching Robyn Nevin (dear theatre community, thank you for relinquishing this national treasure) as the imperious Margaret Denyar witheringly dismiss her daughter's travails. ''I know it's fashionable to be inclusive, but I raised you to be better than that,'' she tells her child at one point, and the laughs come with a welcome seam of truthfulness.
Upper Middle Bogan is at its considerable best when Bess' misguided efforts to bridge the gap backfire. Defending her son at his private school's parent-teacher night, she lectures a disdainful teacher that education isn't a guarantee of happiness, as shown by the Wheelers. But when her own child agrees, adding that's why he's going to leave in year 10 so he can get a mechanic's apprenticeship, Maynard's tipsy double-take is priceless.
Double standards, like double garages, help us see our country a little more clearly.