Once upon a time in the 90s, there was a critically acclaimed Australian TV series called SeaChange, which ended at the height of its popularity for the pure and simple reason that the creator wanted it to. Take a moment to appreciate how rarely, if ever, that happens in modern television, and you might begin to understand the scope of how awesome a show this was. After just three seasons, Deb Cox and Andrew Knight – the creators of what was, at the time, the highest rated program on Australian TV – turned down offers from every major commercial network to fund new episodes of SeaChange and declared instead that it was done. They’d closed everything out the way they wanted; the characters were in a good place, and even though they could have made a lot of money by extending the show, they opted not to milk the cashcow at the expense of running a good thing into the ground. Internets, nobody does this, and it’s really, really stupid. The otherwise universal fate of good shows is either to keep on plugging away, season after season, until they start to turn bad enough that they lose their funding, or else be prematurely cancelled by idiots. Nobody ever quits while they’re ahead, because the idea of discontinuing a popular story for the sake of artistic integrity is not how TV works.

But somehow, somewhen, Cox and Knight put their respective feet down and let things end. Three seasons of awesome, with an ending that closed out everything that needed to be closed out, left open what needed to be left open, and was utterly true to both the characters and the narrative ethos.

I watched SeaChange when it first aired, between the ages of 12 and 15, and have rewatched it multiple times since then. The premise is simple: Laura Gibson, a high-flying corporate lawyer and mother of two, has her whole world come crashing down in a single ill-fated day which culminates in her husband, Jack – who has just been revealed to be having an affair with her sister, Trudi – being publicly arrested for fraud. Utterly bereft, Laura remembers the last place her family was happy: a small town called Pearl Bay, where they spent their last good holiday before her career took off. Leaping at the chance to become the new magistrate for Pearl Bay, Laura promptly relocates – along with her teenage children, Miranda and Rupert – and instantly becomes embroiled in the various feuds, friendships and eccentricities that make up small town life, with the cases she rules on as magistrate providing a constant source of moral dilemmas and tragedies.

Main Female Characters 

Laura Gibson: Neurotic, stressed and out of her depth, Laura spends much of the show learning how to slow down and reconnect with people – particularly her children, but also the people she meets in town. She has two romances over the course of three seasons: one with Diver Dan, a local man with surprising depths, and one with Max Connors, a former journalist who returns home to Pearl Bay for personal reasons. Laura is sharply drawn, inviting sympathy even as she makes you want to strangle her, but always in a realistic way. For all the mistakes she’s made that have adversely affected her nearest and dearest, she’s honestly trying to atone for them, and in many ways is revealed to have been her own biggest victim.

Meredith Monahan: Laura’s first friend in Pearl Bay, Meredith is an older woman who runs the local pub. Possessed of a perfect memory for names, dates and faces, Meredith is sharply intelligent, a left-leaning town matriarch struggling to counterbalance the influence of the right-leaning mayor, Bob Jelly. Though usually rational, fair and compassionate, and always a fierce defender of the underdog, Meredith has a prickly streak, too, and is prone to letting her own stubborn biases get in the way of her judgement. She has spent the majority of her adult life in an adulterous relationship with the previous magistrate, Harold, who lives with her despite still being technically married to someone else.

Heather Jelly: Wife of Mayor Bob Jelly, Heather is, on the surface, the perfect housewife. Devoted to her husband, home and teenage children as well as being a prominent participant in local ladies’ groups, her seeming bubbleheadness conceals a brighter, more passionate person than anyone, especially Bob, gives her credit for. Over the course of the series, she steadily changes from being a passive to an active participant in her own life, slowly confronting the various ways in which Bob takes her for granted, discovering her own personality, and asserting herself outside the home.

Miranda Gibson: Laura’s eldest child, Miranda initially protests the move to Pearl Bay, but soon begins to settle in. Finding an unexpected best friend in Bob Jelly’s son, Craig, she struggles with her parents’ separation while coming into her own as a teenager, clashing with Laura over her hippyish leanings, but ultimately becoming much closer to her mother in the process. When Max arrives, she talks him into starting a local paper – the Pearl Bay Oyster – as part of her quest to become a journalist. She is spirited, sometimes reactionary, loyal, an activist and creative.

Carmen Blake: Meredith’s wayward niece, Carmen is a free-spirited hippy who shows up pregnant to an unknown man and settles into town life in preparation for her daughter’s birth. Prone to straying a little on the wrong side of the law, Carmen is sharp, stubborn, opinionated, spiritual, outspoken and fiercely independent.

Karen Miller: A dedicated police sergeant, Karen wants nothing more than to marry her long-time fiance, Angus, and settle into motherhood. Though enthusiastic, driven and a little naive, Karen is also deeply traditional, occasionally judgmental, possessive and insensitive. Her development over the course of the series is both touching and believable: though she never wavers in her affection for Angus, she also goes on something of a journey of self-discovery, finally exploring the world outside Pearl Bay and, consequently, coming to see it differently on her return.

Phrani Gupta: A local businesswoman, Phrani is scrupulously honest, unfailingly cheerful, and fierce in the defense of the people she loves, though sometimes prone to anger and defensiveness. As the series develops, she comes to have a closer relationship with Kevin, the owner of the caravan park, with the complicated reasons behind her relocation from India eventually being revealed to hinge on domestic troubles. Like Meredith and Heather, Phrani plays an active role in town politics, and often clashes with Bob.

Main Male Characters

Daniel ‘Diver Dan’ Della Bosca: Dan is Laura’s first love interest in Pearl Bay, a widely-traveled man who runs the school ferry and lives above his cafe, which is housed in a boatshed. Adventurous, unconventional and wryly humorous, Dan takes it upon himself to try and calm Laura down, infuriating her almost as much as she infuriates him in the process. Though seemingly cool and collected, he’s had a lot of hard knocks in his life, something which occasionally shows in his quickfire temper. Dan has little tolerance for the rules of ordinary society, and tends to live much as he pleases. He is chaos to Laura’s order, but cares a lot more deeply about most things than he lets on.

Bob Jelly: Mayor of Pearl Bay, Bob is also a real estate mogul and all-round genial patriarch. Though neither as intelligent nor as dignified as he thinks he is, Bob is bluff, corrupt, politically incorrect and prone to massive obliviousness when it comes to his wife, Heather. Bob develops hugely over the course of the series: challenged by the success and failure of various schemes, the implications of Laura’s arrival and Heather’s self-assertion, he slowly changes into a (slightly) better man. For all his faults, he’s a sympathetic character, and not without redeeming qualities, the most important being that, when it really matters, he tries. An equal source of comedy, outrage and pathos, Bob is frequently an antagonist, but never – crucially – a straw man.

Max Connors: A former foreign correspondent, Max returns home to Pearl Bay as a damaged man, his defensiveness and seemingly cheerful sarcasm masking the pain of recent loss. Unable to put his investigative instincts to rest, he amuses himself by hunting down Bob’s various corruptions and bringing them to light, and expresses his attraction to Laura via the adult equivalent of ceaselessly tugging on her pigtails. Max also has a tense, often destructive relationship with Carmen: the two share an inquisitive, journalistic bent and both have suffered trauma, but Max has no patience for Carmen’s spirituality, and the pair are as often at each other’s throats as not. Max is contrary, loyal, empathetic, stubborn, curious and a prankster, and delights in every opportunity to circumvent authority.

Harold Fitzwalter: Meredith’s paramour and the ex-magistrate of Pearl Bay, Harold is also a recovering alcoholic. Now representing clients in his old court, he struggles with getting older, with sobriety, with family and with life. He loves Meredith dearly, and as the two of them deal together with the new resurgence of old secrets, he begins to recover his passion.

Rupert Gibson: Laura’s younger child, Rupert has been the most challenged by their move to Pearl Bay. He misses his father, and is constantly scheming for ways to get his parents back together. Finding a best friend in Trevor, the son of Kevin the caravan owner, Rupert’s various observations about life, his academic struggles and his various shenanigans often end up causing Laura no end of trouble, but as the series develops, he starts to come into himself and not only accept, but embrace his new life, though never losing faith in his father.

Angus Kabiri: The court clerk and Karen’s paramour, Angus is a quiet young man of set routines and (very well hidden) depths. Kind and compassionate but nervous of committing himself fully to Karen, Angus exists in a state of anxiety about what he wants to do, the sort of man he should be, and where his life is headed. His greatest passion is surfing, and he is often at a loss as to how express his feelings to Karen. Good-hearted, occasionally vague and prone to evasion, Angus’s constant worries nonetheless give him a strangely existential bent, while his occasional passionate outbursts on court matters are a strong counterbalance to Laura’s usual deference to procedure.

Graham Grey: The local police sergeant, Grey is a frequently mistrusted authority figure more often allied with Laura than the rest of the town and still considered an outsider by many, both because of his job in court and because he’s still looked upon as a new arrival. He feels this isolation keenly, and walks the difficult line of trying to fit into a town whose citizens he must simultaneously police. His home life is complicated, and though he sometimes clashes with Max, the two are on friendly terms. Grey is also given the unenviable task of mentoring Karen, whose enthusiasm for policework often expresses itself in inconvenient ways.

Kevin Findlay: The owner of the caravan park and father of Trevor, Rupert’s best friend, Kev is sweet and hard-working, but far from being the sharpest knife in the block. For this reason, he is frequently manipulated into being Bob’s dupe in town matters, and though Phrani defends him fiercely, he is often the accidental cause of more problems than might otherwise be the case. Despite his difficult childhood, Kevin is kind, thoughtful in his own way, and as the series develops, he becomes increasingly confident in standing up for both himself and others, even when this means crossing Bob.

Jack Gibson: For all his faults, Jack is never a straw man. Trying to rebuild his relationship with Laura and his children, he presents as both a weak and sympathetic figure: weak, in terms of his business failures, jealousy of Laura’s success and ongoing relationship with Trudi; sympathetic, in that he was and remains and excellent, devoted father, one who tries to mend his mistakes even as he keeps making them. Though sometimes acrimonious, Jack’s relationship with Laura slowly improves over the course of the show, though not without pitfalls on both their parts.

There are other supporting regulars with smaller parts – notably Craig and Jules Jelly, plus local blokes Griff and Simmo – as well as other, more important characters who only appear in a handful of episodes, but despite its size, the cast is universally well-developed. Across all three seasons, everyone grows and changes: relationships form, fall apart, develop and start again, friendships mutate and evolve, secrets are revealed, and challenges are surmounted. There is tension, drama, humour and tragedy, with just a touch of the improbable thrown in (Pearl Bay itself is prone to a surprising number of improbable weather phenomena, ensuring that the bridge to the mainland always ends up broken). It is, in short, an incredible show, and one which defined both my teenage years and my sense of narrative in multiple significant ways.

What really sells SeaChange is the characterisation. The cast is dominated by strong women, all of them exploring love and relationships in different ways, but none of them perfect; and by the same token, even the antagonists are given fair shrift, with no straw man characters and development for all. There’s a decidedly left-leaning bent to the narratives: every episode passes the Bechdel test and there’s an undeniably feminist flavour to the proceedings, but never at the expense of demonising the more traditional characters, all of whom are shown sympathetically. Like the population of Pearl Bay itself, SeaChange walks the line between extreme local conservatism and extreme far-leftism, with hippies like Carmen taking the same gentle mocking as right-wingers like Bob. There’s an amazing sense of strength and community to the show, and despite the number of heavy issues touched on in various episodes – corruption, homophobia, domestic violence, euthanasia, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, prejudice, sexuality and suicide being just a few – the writers never preach to the audience, leaving the ultimate decision up to the individual viewer. Dark moments are leavened with humour, and there’s an endearing self-awareness to the occasional moments of absurdity.

SeaChange is an amazing show, but one which few people are likely to have heard of outside of Australia. If you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend doing so.

Comments
  1. Alison Grahame says:

    You’ve brought it all back to me so beautifully Foz I feel I need to rush to JB Hi FI and buy the whole lot!

  2. Kathryn says:

    Excellent recap. I loved Sea Change too. In fact without trying I am sure we could break into song…such a great sound track too.
    I often think of the development of heather jelly’s character with a great fondness. She is a great actress and it would have been an awesome role to play. I think I might need to rewatch Sea Change with you. First stop… blockbuster.
    Love K

  3. […] of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping […]

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