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Special highlights mysteries of Australia

Sunday, September 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Australia is once again hot, and not just because its summer is about to begin.

The Olympics kick off in Sydney later this month, "Survivor II: The Outback" begins filming this fall for a January premiere and "Crocodile Dundee 3" is in production for the silver screen.

Throw in Animal Planet's "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin (he hosts a special on his homeland, "Croc Hunter Holiday," on Travel Channel Sept. 11), and it's clear Australia is the hip place to hang 10.

In PBS's "Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore," art critic/author Robert Hughes explains 95 percent of Australians live near the sun and surf of the coast, forsaking the continent's vast interior. At July's Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Hughes said Australians' view of the frontier varies markedly from America's manifest destiny and march across the North American continent.


"Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore"

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday on WQED/WQEX.

Host: Robert Hughes


"In Australia, space itself was the prison," Hughes said. "In America, you go out. You walk across the country. You discover paradise. In Australia, you walk across the country and you find absolutely nothing and then you die. We don't associate large space with freedom and with opportunity in the way that Americans do. It's a totally different kind of social myth."

Hughes, who wrote and hosts "Beyond the Fatal Shore," had his own near-fatal experience while making the six-part series (airing over three nights). While in Australia, Hughes was in an auto accident that nearly killed him. That personal story looms large in Tuesday's first hour as Hughes rediscovers his native country, from hedonists (Hughes visits the set of a pornographic film) to conservatives (protesters at a gay pride parade).

Hughes compared the American mindset to the Australian outlook based on the founding of both countries.

"The biggest single difference between Australians and Americans is that you were founded as a religious experiment and we were founded as a jail," Hughes said. "You Americans always had before your eyes this possibility of Utopia. You think it's always somewhere around the corner ... whereas we, perhaps more realistically, know that we are there as a punishment for our sins. And we're deeply skeptical about the notion of redemption."

Hughes said "Beyond the Fatal Shore" will explore the treatment of Australian Aborigines, which he said is analogous to that of the treatment of American Indians by American whites.

"Beyond the Fatal Shore" also provides glimpses of the creatures Australia is most known for - kangaroos and koala bears - but it's no "up with Australia" travelogue.

"There is no point in this series in which I sit up there with a goofy smile on my face and cuddle a little koala," Hughes said. "I won't do any of that crap. What I'm interested in is a really live, complex, in some ways, difficult country, which I think sort of radiates a very high level of social intelligence and civilization at its best."

But it's not a country where the upcoming Olympics will be a defining event for generations to come, Hughes said.

"I don't see it as a pivotal moment at all," he said. "I see it as a considerable [public relations] opportunity, and lot of people are going to make a lot of money off it," Hughes said. "As far as I'm aware, the word 'Olympics' is not mentioned anywhere in any of these six programs because, frankly, I am bored stiff about the sight of a bunch of super men of all colors, and super women too, running around a track and how many nano-seconds they do it in."

Hughes doesn't care much for the idea of "Survivor" in Australia, either.

"I think it's a waste," he said. "You can play around with the idea of desert wilderness and Outback, but it doesn't get you any closer to a serious understanding of it. It's not put there as a jolly little wilderness-testing device. I just have no patience for that kind of thing."

OK, so he's a bit of a crank, but Hughes is an amusing crank who makes an inspired tour guide for this TV journey to the land down under.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette/tv under TV Forum.

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