The second season of Puberty Blues has erased all my nagging fears about Australian drama…and reinvigorated my concern over our inability to get a clear picture of ourselves.
Based on Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s 1970s book, Puberty Blues chronicles the teenage trials of Debbie Vickers and her best friend Sue Knight. The first eight episodes concerned themselves with the girls’ torturous introduction to high school, the cliques they struggled to break into and the boyfriends they craved. The next nine installments centre on the complexity of the lives they’ve created for themselves. Debbie and Sue are navigating the shoals of sexual promiscuity while Debbie’s boyfriend Gary slips further and further into drug use. Debbie’s parents soon twig to the increasingly physical pastimes of her peer group and opt to send her to a boarding school ostensibly for her education, but mostly to lock her away from boys. Meantime their relationship struggles to emerge from its own adolescence, with dad Martin confronting his emotional unfaithfulness and mum Judy coming to terms with her pomposity.
Three weeks in, the much-anticipated return shows every promise of delivering more of the first season’s carefully crafted drama. Once again art director Max Haymes has done a superb job recreating a decade of decadence without tipping the scales into farce – the essence of the 70s captured in velour and wood-grain without over-the-top afros. The various directors employed, notably Glendyn Ivin, have also delivered superbly paced performances that capture the angst of puberty without slipping into melodrama. All in all, a superb piece of work … that’s largely being overlooked by Australian audiences.
The ratings have not been kind to Puberty Blues, showing a steady slide from last year’s million viewer triumphs down to more recent returns in the 500-thousands. It could be the knock-on effect of being on a network that’s struggling; or possibly the fact that younger audiences have no nostalgia to fall back on. However for those of us who remember the decade it’s worth considering what lessons we’ve emerged with.
The initial crisis for Puberty Blues is the unexpected pregnancy that absorbs Debbie and Sue’s attention. Their rough-as-guts friend Cheryl becomes pregnant to her stepfather Nathan and requires an abortion. This is the device the writers use to get our heroines thinking about what they hope to gain from sex. Sue tells her mother,
“Girls don’t even like sex – and they’re the ones who have to have abortions. I wish boys had to have abortions.”
However her mother corrects her pessimism by providing her with a copy of The Joy Of Sex and encouraging her to find a boy she can ‘teach’ to give her the pleasure she needs. The tragedy here is not just the dangerous quest Sue’s mum sends her on, but the fact that she is presented by the series as the model parent.
Retrospective series like Puberty Blues allow us to look back with hi-definition-hindsight and see the unwitting mistakes our families made – the sort that don’t usually become visible till the seeds of well-meant advice finally bear fruit. But what seems crazy to me is the suggestion that sexual promiscuity is still not a problem – just the way in which we give in to our desires. We live in a world where abstinence is almost non-existent and life-long commitment has been reduced to the standing of a quaint tradition. Yet we also endure the lowest ages for sexual experience and the highest levels of abortion in our history, not to mention a marriage failure rate of somewhere approaching 50%. But we stubbornly refuse to connect the dots.
I wouldn’t recommend Puberty Blues for young teenagers, nor the age-group it addresses without some Christian parent to encourage a greater context. However it does a good job of highlighting the foolishness of trusting in the suburban dream for happiness. It’s just a pity it hasn’t realized all of the lessons we should have learnt from the 70s.
Distributor: Network Ten
Release Date: Wednesdays, 8:30 PM