Better late than never : We need more characters like Janet King

I start this post by admitting that I am always way late in catching up on movies and television that most people have seen, discussed and enjoyed months, sometimes years, earlier.  So it is with a certain sheepishness that I say, that while I know it aired on the ABC in early 2014, I only recently watched and absolutely loved Janet King. It had me gripped from beginning to end and I watched it in two sittings via Netflix. I get that two sittings may not be a true binge by most standards but it’s as close as I am likely to get on a work night.

Why did I enjoy Janet King so much? It has an intriguing, fast moving, suitably coincidence-laden, compelling plot and above all, it is simply very well written. I loved that it is Australian, with a large cast of brilliant local actors (including Peter Kowitz, Vince Colosimo and Hamish Michael) and that I sat enthralled by its 8 episodes the same way I am by my favourite Scandinavian dramas in The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing.

Of those dramas, Janet King, as a character, probably has most in common with Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg. She is a determined, smart, confident, accomplished and, occasionally, flawed woman. She is excellent at her job and conflicted by her post maternity leave return to work. Her relationship with her partner is refreshing in that it is inherently part of the character’s trajectory but not the primary object of the narrative. Janet and Ash (Aimee Pedersen) juggle the day to day stresses of work, home, and parenting like many couples but the issues that  the show presents as occasionally dividing them are largely external. It is refreshing to see a couple portrayed on television where the focus is not on the machinations of the relationship or whether it will survive. As an audience, we accept Janet and Ash as a given and none of the challenges the storyline  throws in their path seems intended to shake our conviction in this regard.

As a character, Janet is easy to identify and empathise with. While most of us aren’t even remotely senior prosecutors, we recognize the pressures and politics of the workplace, any workplace, and then forgetting to do the shopping on the way home. It is the familiarity of these elements that anchor the story when the narrative heads full speed into more heightened mystery- thriller territory. It is the striking of a balance between the tropes of television story telling and the creation of recognisable, empathetic characters, that Janet King does particularly well.

Marta Dusseldorp in the title role is excellent. She suggests Janet’s professional confidence and determination while remaining self-effacing enough to make her a complex, vulnerable and completely engaging presence. There is something heartbreaking about how exposed she is when circumstances (and bad guys) separate her from her partner and children. As an audience, we are with her every step, as she attempts to solve the central mystery, in order to facilitate a reunion with them. The justified fierceness of her indignation at the threat to her family is palpable.  It is a confident, compassionate performance that results in a complex and relatable character. In Janet King, Dussledorp and the production team create a heroine as nuanced yet admirable, albeit in very  different ways, as Sarah Lund of The Killing or The Bridge’s Saga Noren.

While mystery at the series’ centre is completely absorbing, I admit (or do I boast?), I suspected the identity of the villain/s in slightly before the end.  If anything, this increased my investment in the piece as an elaborate cat and mouse game.  It is worth noting that I second-guessed and revised my theory multiple times until the final denouement and remained totally engrossed to the conclusion.

I have no doubt that I am not alone in hoping to see Janet King have a second season. It is easily as good as any of the multi part international dramas that are justifiably, and sometimes not so justifiably, hyped in this country. It is exciting to see an Australian drama that speaks to us with our own voice while absolutely holding its own, in terms of quality, in an international market.

I might be 12 months late but I enjoyed Janet King as much as anything I have seen on television over the last couple of years. We need  more characters like her on Australian television. More strong women who are recognisable, complex, confident, witty, passionate, smart, over 30 and not necessarily obsessed with finding their next relationship.

Janet King is available on IView until May 1 and currently on Netflix. Catch it if you haven’t already.


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