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The Globe and Mail

Two superb series show how TV’s done Down Under

Today we're taking a trip to Australia.

While it might sometimes seem that we have 500 channels all airing the same material, one of the pleasures of an array of cable channels is access to shows that are, in fact, unfamiliar.

We're going to shy away from making grand statements about contrasts between the Australian TV industry and Canada's. There are obvious points of comparison: Australia is a relatively small English language market, where locally produced series struggle for an audience because commercial channels air American network and cable fare. There is a public broadcaster, ABC, very like CBC, offering television, radio and online services. But it would take an entire conference to figure out what Australia does better, and where it is worse.

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So, let's just see what they're doing in Australia. We've got two examples airing on Super Channel right now.

SLiDE is an excellent teen drama that lands somewhere between our Degrassi franchise and the superb British series Skins. Less earnest than Degrassi and less melancholy than Skins, SLiDE has a naturalistic quality that's admirable. Set in Brisbane, it's about five teenagers: Scarlett is beautiful and rich, Luke is effortlessly cool, Ed isn't cool at all, Tammy is down-to-earth and wise beyond her years, and Eva is a rebellious, gifted artist. There are few adults, and most of those who appear are either pathetic or boring. That's because the show's point of view is very much that of the teenagers.

Every episode of SLiDE (yes, that's the official spelling) is about 24 hours in the lives of these kids. Something happens, pleasurable or disastrous, and the characters cope with it. The aim is to have the characters, cocky as they are, encounter an adult situation from which they learn.

But there is nothing heavy-handed about the drama. It has a fluid rhythm, and one gets the feeling that the young actors have some input into their characters. There's considerably more nuance in the treatment of the egos and attitudes of the teenagers than in most U.S. network dramas. There's admiration and less judgement. It's a fine series, adept at capturing the awfulness of adolescence, and the joys.

Cloudstreet is simply superb. A three-part mini-series based on a novel by Australian writer Tim Winton, it's about the intertwining lives of two families. There are the religious Lambs, and then there are the Pickles, who are as ne'er do well as the Lambs are devout. Both families end up living in the same house in the mid-1940s.

Made with a beautiful lyricism, the drama shifts subtly from heartache to wit. An early scene, in which a young boy almost drowns, is shocking in its intensity. And then, as events unfold, there's formidable warmth, without the tone ever descending into sentimentality.

Kerry Fox, who played author Janet Frame in the movie An Angel at My Table, is excellent as Oriel, the steely matriarch of the Lamb family. In fact, there isn't a bad performance in a series with a sprawling story and cast.

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Also airing tonight

Frontline's League of Denial (on most PBS channels, 9 p.m.) is notorious before it even airs. Sports network ESPN was originally involved in the two-hour investigation of the National Football League, and then withdrew from it. There has been speculation that ESPN was afraid of the wrath of all-powerful NFL, and little wonder. This is a carefully composed indictment of the league. Most of the first hour is devoted to the story of Mike Webster, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers player who died at age 50, diagnosed with the neurological disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to Frontline, the NFL worked hard to dispute the diagnosis. At the core of the program (its airs October 15 on the Buffalo PBS channel WNED) is the question of when the NFL was aware of the dangers posed to players, and what it decided to do.

Also, take note that The Rick Mercer Report (CBC, 8 p.m.) returns tonight. Mercer goes "heli-hiking" on Mount Nimbus in British Columbia, and attends the Friday the 13th Motorcycle Rally in Port Dover, Ont. Then This Hour has 22 Minutes (CBC, 8:30 p.m.) returns to make fun of things. They've got lots to work with.

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