Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

TV review: Filthy Rich just more of the same

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The cast of TVNZ's new TV show, Filthy Rich.
The cast of TVNZ's new TV show, Filthy Rich.

My first thought was: who has sex with the news on?

Brady Truebridge (Miriama Smith), the young, fierce wife of ancient businessman John Truebridge is getting into it with her personal trainer when she hears the news of his death. From Wendy Petrie, who is playing loudly in the background while the pair remove lycra and all that. Have two young people ever done it with One News on at any point in human history? Seems unlikely. Seems like an extremely niche kink.

The scene is an early red flag, and happens three minutes into the first episode of Filthy Rich (TV2, 8.30pm Mondays and Tuesdays), a show billed as a "bold new drama" when its commissioning was announced in October of 2014. And there is a lot to admire about the scheduling - 20 episodes crammed into 10 hectic weeks, playing on consecutive nights just like The Block and The Bachelor. Like One's decision to air Doctor Foster all in a row last month, it suggests a desire to break from traditional scheduling in an era where bingeing is now considered the ideal way to consume television.

Unfortunately, the boldness extends only so far. Filthy Rich concerns the aftermath of Truebridge's death, when his will reveals three previously unknown heirs, who collectively have been granted a controlling interest in his billion-dollar business.

The heirs are: a stripper with a heart of gold, a stoner with a heart of a gold and a boxing instructor with, yep, a heart of gold. They will face off against a conniving widow with a bumbling assistant who will stop at nothing to retain control of her empire. Hi-jinks will no doubt ensue.

The show comes from Filthy Productions, a start-up that has $15m of NZ on Air funding to produce a pair of dramas for TVNZ this year. The creative team behind the show is Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan who, between them, have been key forces behind many of our recent mega-budget shows. These include Go Girls, The Almighty Johnsons, The Blue Rose, Nothing Trivial and This is Not My Life - none outright terrible, and some pretty good. But all of a piece, somehow genealogically linked, despite their disparate premises.

The cast of TVNZ's new TV show, Filthy Rich.
The cast of TVNZ's new TV show, Filthy Rich.

They all were chasing Outrageous Fortune, New Zealand drama's great white whale, an elusive creature whose combination of major critical and commercial success has lead to show commissioners and funders chasing another on the same scale ever since.

Filthy Rich is not it. The show looks beautiful and has cool elements - notably Miriama Smith's ruthless self-made businesswomen at its centre - but can't escape the crushing weight of its conceit and script.

"You left your seeing-eye dog behind," says the stripper to a mysterious stranger.

"Charmed, I'm sure," says the MP to the CEO. "Buster." "Dosh." These aren't words and phrases that exist outside of some dusty New Zealand drama toolkit - no one has spoken them in the wild since the 70s.

The show becomes a caricature of New Zealand, with heartless wealth and plucky poverty and a cynical pimp and a conniving businesswoman. The show it called to mind the most was Dallas, a groundbreaking drama centred around the scions of a wealthy family. State-of-the-art in 1980.

Nearly four decades on we need so much more. We can't cry poor, its $8m budget is more than enough to create a show of substance. Denmark's television industry has become an internationally admired powerhouse with similar budgets, responsible for hits like Borgen and The Killing, which have echoed around the world.

On the first night's evidence Filthy Rich is unlikely to do the same. From the intrusive 2000s "rock" score to the breakneck pace and desperate plot contrivances, it's a show that feels entirely adrift from the thrust of contemporary international drama; shows like Mad Men, or Transparent, or Broadchurch, which are low-key, moody, subtle yet shattering.

A scene from the TV show Filthy Rich.
A scene from the TV show Filthy Rich.

There's no good reason we can't do the same. We're culturally known for overpowering a lack of funding with creativity. A worldwide smash single came out of a villa in Morningside, one of the biggest directors in history from no-budget splatter films. We have extraordinary television talents in Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Taika Waititi and Jane Campion. They barely work here, and the Flight of the Conchords crew had to head overseas to get their show made.

That's not what our system should be doing. Young talent should be getting turns at the wheel, with us all comfortable in the knowledge that some will swerve straight into the ditch. But a few public failures are the price you pay to get to true greatness, the kind of blazing, original television we must have the capacity to create.

The current system doesn't allow for that. Instead, a vanishing small group of people get to make what feels like variations on the same solid-yet-unspectacular drama, over and over again, apparently for all eternity.

Filthy Rich, intended to function on some level as a commentary on excess and inequality, actually embodies the very inequities it intends to critique: the lack of a path to control for young television talent. The show should signify a moment in which we need to thank its creators for their services to our industry, and ask that they politely pass the torch to a new generation. Because we can and should do better than this.

- The Spinoff

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