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The Age

Gambling on loser theme

Author: Frances Atkinson
Date: 17/03/2011
Words: 1150
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Green Guide
Page: 12
A new show about a bunch of former outcasts is packed with expectation, writes Frances Atkinson.

IT'S a surprise to hear one of television's most successful players talking about his "inner loser". This is from the man who dreamt up a show about a couple "who on their 25th wedding anniversary finally have the kids out of the house but 24 hours later, they're all back under the same roof", which turned into Packed to the Rafters, one of Australia's most popular series. But Channel Seven's Bevan Lee admits that, despite his small-screen winning streak, he knows what it feels like to be a loser.

"I have an inner doofus  but I love that guy," he says. "He's the one who keeps the creativity going."

That doofus, together with executive producer, John Holmes, and producer MaryAnne Carroll, is responsible for Winners & Losers, a comedy-drama about four twentysomething girls who meet up at their dreaded 10-year high-school reunion organised by the very women who made their school years a living hell. Have they really changed, or will the ghosts of their former unpopular selves haunt them forever?

The success or failure of the show, filmed in Melbourne in the fictitious bayside suburb of Renwood, rests on the shoulders of the young, reasonably unknown, female cast. Zoe Tuckwell-Smith is Bec Gilbert, a beautician; Melanie Vallejo is Sophie Wong, fitness instructor and sexual dynamo; Melissa Bergland is flame-haired loud-mouth Jenny Gross; and Virginia Gay is Frances James, a workaholic.

Rounding out the cast is Michala Banas as "bitch" personified Tiffany Turner and, in her first major TV acting role, comedian Denise Scott plays Jenny's doting mother Trish.

Next week's first episode is all about introducing the four lead characters and the main storyline, which revolves around a winning lotto ticket that is drunkenly bought on a whim by three of the quartet on the way home from reunion night.

Injecting an unexpected windfall into the mix, Lee says, not only cements the women's friendships, it also throws conflict in all their paths.

"I've been to reunions and you have the best intentions about keeping in touch but you don't," he says. "Winning the money binds the girls and sets them on a new path. It also makes them confront the lies they tell themselves.

"Frances has to stop blaming work for not having a boyfriend, Sophie's in a lot a pain and just wants to keep dancing on a glass floor, Bec thinks her boyfriend will propose as soon as he has enough money and if Jenny wasn't pushed, she'd live at home forever."

In Channel Seven's Docklands studios, an upbeat Gay, last seen on All Saints playing Gabrielle Jaeger, sits behind a desk strewn with Winners & Losers scripts. Though Gay projects none of her character's social awkwardness, she admits: "You never lose the scars of high school.

"In my head I'm still this overweight 14 year old. Even though I feel like my life is successful, I can still remember what being that girl felt like."

Though Gay auditioned for her part, Lee had her in mind to play the role of the work-obsessed Frances from the start.

"We had a chat about this idea of carrying around your inner loser while projecting something more successful to the wider world," he says.

Finding the perfect cast was crucial but filling the three other roles happened quickly, he adds. "We were lucky. You always hold your breath and hope the right actors come in the door."

Lee knows all about the power of the perfect cast. With Rafters, he has the star power of Rebecca Gibney and Erik Thomson as the appealing Julie and Dave Rafter but as the cast of Winners & Losers are lesser-known, no individual pulls focus. This wasn't intentional, says series producer Carroll, "but the rapport between the actors is so fantastic, I wouldn't have it any other way".

If Packed to the Rafters makes viewers want to pop the kettle on and reach for their slippers, Winners & Losers hopes to have female viewers  and at least some men  sipping bubbles and texting friends about whether Bec's boyfriend will propose or if Sophie's dark past will ruin her chances of happiness.

With networks clogged with cooking and cop shows, Winners & Losers shares space with a clutch of programs that feature strong female leads, such as Offspring, Spirited and Laid. Lee is reluctant to make comparisons.

"I don't think Winners will be compared to Offspring. They're relationship shows but the rhythms are very different. Winners is fast-paced and the narrative is stronger. Yes, they are female-based but that's about it." Isolating male viewers, Lee says, concerned Channel Seven executives but he's confident the supporting male cast of all-round "good blokes" and a gay best friend, which includes Blair McDonough, Stephen Phillips, Tom Wren, Damien Bodie and veteran comic actor Francis Greenslade, will attract men.

"This is primarily a show by women and for women but we've sculpted it a bit so if men are watching, there's something they can get from it," Lee says. "The male characters are interesting. Male views will definitely get some insight into women's lives."

Much of the look of Winners & Losers is orchestrated by Carroll, who guides a large team of experts to create the lives of each of the four women, including the music used in scenes, their apartments, clothes and bedrooms  each object on their shelves tells you something about the characters. While Bec's home is beach-house cosy with a scattering of old tins and a comfy couch, Frances's apartment is sparse and modern. Sophie's loft is a clash of high heels and boxing gloves, while Jenny's room is full of books about Princess Diana and fluffy toys.

Ultimately, Winners & Losers, Lee says, is a drama about female friendships through good times and bad, with lots of light and plenty of shade. "It does get darker. Drama is conflict. You can't have people sitting around being 'nice' to each other. That would be deadly dull."

Avoiding deadly dull TV is something Lee has spent decades perfecting. Over the past few years he's created or been involved with Sons and Daughters, All Saints, Home and Away, Halifax f.p., McLeod's Daughters and a few projects that flopped. Lee is philosophical. "To be honest, deep down I had a gut feeling about the ones that didn't work."

Expectations are high and the success of Packed to the Rafters doesn't help.

"It is [a] little bit harder, because obviously viewers might want it to match Rafters but the whole team just have to block that out. All you can do is come up with an idea and throw it out into the void. All those other factors are white noise.

"Does this one feel like a winner? My gut tells me yes but we'll have to wait and see."

Winners & Losers premieres on Tuesday at 8.30pm on Channel Seven.

 
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