One's venerable Sunday Theatre series returned last weekend with an excellent TV movie named How To Murder Your Wife, resurrecting a harrowing domestic murder from late '70s Wellington in very blackly comic style.
The idea of film-length, one-off television drama seems hopelessly anachronistic in this era, during which that style of intelligent, artistically inclined production has gravitated toward 6-12 part series in the now well-established HBO tradition. But How To Murder Your Wife, the first of four feature-length dramas in the season - each adapted from a real New Zealand crime - shows the possibilities the form retains.
The most striking element of this instalment was its brazen amorality. There are almost no likeable characters to be found, and it's told from the perspective of Alf Benning, the murderer. A figure tragic, pitiful and eventually terrifying. His wife Elizabeth - a deeply maligned Geraldine Brophy - is worse: scheming, vindictive, unconscionably cruel. The decision to make her the villain of the piece is bold, and perhaps callous, given her eventual fate: the film seems to suggest she had it coming.
But it also makes the story bracingly free of the familiar judgments of film and television, with a deserving murder victim and a bumbling, sympathetic killer.
The early part of the piece shows Alf plotting his crime, taking methodical steps to complete what he conceives of as the perfect murder, all the while leaving glaring, unambiguous clues.
He's aided and abetted by the callous indifference of the '70s police, who come off like a gang of lawless jocks - "We're not taking them all in you idiot. Just the trannies" - which nonetheless feels accurate to the known facts of the crime.
Having the murderer play narrator, reading aloud from a manuscript is a device which initially seems a little dated. When added to the typewritten introductions on screen and a few flashy stunt transitions, it recalls the somewhat overbearing Guy Ritchie-isms of Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud.
Director Richard Pellizzeri produced that series, yet How To Murder Your Wife soon reveals itself as a better, more nuanced and subtle product.
It evokes '70s Wellington beautifully, from set design to social mores to costuming, without ever feeling self-consciously of its era.
Karl Stevens' score, period instrumental exotica, is similarly well-pitched.
One of the most satisfying elements of the whole production is the age of the protagonists. Two generations of Shortland Street receptionists have meaty roles (Alison "Yvonne Jeffries" Quigan joins Brophy) - meaning it not only passes the Bechdel Test, but does so with women in their 50s and 60s. It's depressingly hard to imagine this happening in any serialised form, but the strength of each performance shows what a resource exists in those actors.
And, once again, the value of Shortland Street as both an incubator and treadmill for our screen talent.
More than anything, it made me wonder what might happen if we deployed our funding resources more broadly. I watched TV3's wonderful Humans immediately afterwards, and was struck by how little budget it must have required. Relatively few locations, set in an alternative reality version of the present day. It's a just brilliantly simple idea, convincingly executed.
How to Murder Your Wife, a production rolled into action to create a single sitting of television, shows the immense quality we're capable of as a nation. Yet from a showrunning perspective, we seem to be stuck fishing in the same shallow pool.
None of this is intended as a criticism of those who regularly swim there. They reliably churn out solid, occasionally brilliant television. Yet their ubiquity when the commissioning and funding announcements come out implies that there is little room for future generations of television talent to come through and create their own worlds.
This series is off to a promising start, but contains an element of sadness, too. As each week's presentation ends, that's all we'll see of those characters, of that world.
I'd love to think that in the next couple of years our funding agency might look to blood a few new television makers with deeply original ideas, alongside the more familiar faces. That way the next Alf Benning we meet might be around longer than one night.
* What did you think? Post your comments below.