Few public figures since Bob Hawke have emoted their way into Australian hearts the way Melissa Leong did this year. As one of the three new hosts of MasterChef Australia, Leong bonded with contestants, gushed over their food, celebrated the diversity of the line-up, and basked in the honour of being the first female judge, and the first of Asian heritage, in the show’s 12-year history. Not infrequently, she seasoned it all with tears.
“She brought a touch of glamour to a show that was lacking it, but also a touch of humility and honesty, and she was very emotional,” observes media analyst Ian Warner of Moonlighting Connects. “It felt like she really bonded with the contestants.”
And with audiences, too. The departure of original judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris might have signalled the beginning of the end. Instead, with ratings up massively across the 2020 season, it extended its life, and gave Channel Ten confidence to do a junior version of the show for the first time since 2011.
It wasn’t just Leong, of course; fellow judges Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen also have their fans.
“MasterChef may not have been Melissa’s first TV appearance, but it cemented her with a broad audience,” says David Knox, founder and editor of website TV Tonight. “The risky rebooting of the judges paid off in spades.”
“Bluey’s superpower is its relatability,” notes Jenny Buckland.
Every year’s a good year for Bluey, the six-year-old blue heeler at the heart of the hit animated series from Brisbane. But this was an especially good year as Bluey collected an Emmy for best pre-school program; its second season began airing on the ABC, BBC and Disney networks worldwide; a third season was commissioned; and a much-delayed (thanks, COVID) theatrical production is finally set to hit stages around the country from December.
Creator Joe Brumm trained at Queensland’s Griffith University, cut his teeth as an animator on children’s TV in the UK, and returned to his hometown determined to make a show that could rival the best the British had to offer. And he succeeded: Bluey is the biggest thing to ever hit the ABC’s iView platform, racking up more than 480 million plays since it first aired in 2018.
In 2016, when he was head of children’s content, ABC director of entertainment and specialist Michael Carrington gave Brumm $20,000 to take a rough, one-minute proposal to a full-blown pilot. He’s seen that investment pay off in spades. “Joe has created a show that sits proudly alongside contemporary greats like Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig, which is a genuine reflection of his great talent,” Carrington says.
“Bluey’s superpower is its relatability,” notes Jenny Buckland, Australian Children’s Television Foundation CEO. “[The characters] live in the suburbs, they juggle work and play, and it is so finely attuned to the minutiae of family life.”
“Bruna returning home to produce Nine Perfect Strangers is a coup for the entire sector,” says Kate Marks, CEO of Ausfilm.
For most film and TV producers, getting one show over the line in 2020 counts as a major win. For Adelaide-born Bruna Papandrea, who has built a career in Hollywood with movies such as Warm Bodies, Gone Girl and Wild as well as the TV series Big Little Lies, the wheels didn’t just keep turning, they gathered serious speed.
She and her fellow producers at Made Up Stories – husband Steve Hutensky and Jodi Matterson – have powered through a year in which much of the industry ground to a halt. The murder mystery series The Undoing, starring collaborator and friend Nicole Kidman, has just hit our screens.
In January the rural crime drama The Dry, based on Jane Harper’s bestselling novel and starring Eric Bana, will arrive in cinemas. A few weeks later Penguin Bloom, starring Naomi Watts as a woman whose family life transforms after taking in an injured magpie, will hit the big screen.
But perhaps the biggest win has been shooting the big-budget drama series Nine Perfect Strangers in Byron Bay with an international cast (Kidman, who is also a producer, Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon among them).
“Bruna returning home to produce Nine Perfect Strangers is a coup for the entire sector,” says Kate Marks, CEO of Ausfilm, the agency whose mission it is to entice big-budget foreign productions Down Under.
“Australia’s ability to control the spread of the pandemic is creating such opportunities for our film and television industry.” Proof positive: earlier this month, Papandrea revealed Pieces of Her, an eight-episode Netflix series starring Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor Toni Collette, will start shooting in Sydney in January.
Robert Connolly, director of The Dry, says making Nine Perfect Strangers through COVID-19 was a high-stakes gamble whose failure would have been “catastrophic”, but Papandrea pulled it off. “What Bruna has achieved is to pioneer an opportunity for Australia to be the destination of choice for these major works of television,” he says. “It will pave the way for more projects like this.”
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