In the summer of 2001 St Kilda was buzzing with the gamut of Melbourne life. As the days grew longer and the sun harsher, families trundled toward the waterside. Children’s squeals drifted down from Luna Park’s Great Scenic Railway and bikes whirled across the rickety pier. The cafe windows of Acland Street promised rococo delights of sugar and cream. When the sun set, low-rise jeans and embellished Ed Hardy singlets packed the Espy to see Spiderbait or Look Who’s Toxic. This is the landscape that gave life to the noughties twenty-something soap, The Secret Life of Us. It wasn’t, however, the Australia heretofore found in popular culture.
Audiences had grown used to unsettling outback landscapes, and the grit and grime—even violence—of the city at the centre of Underbelly or Romper Stomper. The suburban sprawl that situated comedies like Kath and Kim and The Castle was served up with sarcastic disdain and a strong helping of cultural cringe—the wide, eucalypt-laden suburban streets becoming what Sue Turnbull calls a ‘cultural fault-line in Australia’. But The Secret Life of Us offers a fresh perspective on a familiar setting.
The show stars a young Claudia Carvan as Alex, navigating her first years out of medical school, and Deborah Mailman as Kelly, the new kid on the block—all eager naivety, with a penchant for multi-level marketing schemes. Early seasons feature pre-Hollywood Joel Edgerton and Samuel Johnson before he dreamt of jiving his way through reality television.
The art deco block sits at the heart of the show. As flatmates flit in and out, Miranda’s wall of Namatjira paintings and the clutter of rooftop deck chairs bear witness to almost half a decade of horrendous hangovers, unrequited infatuations, and shattered dreams. But 14A Acland Street is more than the sum of its mishaps—it’s home to one of the first simple, non-judgmental representations of youth culture in urban Australia.
Prior to The Secret Life of Us, depictions of Australian cityscapes were self-depricating at best. This can be seen as early as 1911, when Louis Esson penned his essay against Australian suburbia, seeing it as a poor alternative to Australia’s natural landscapes or more thrilling international centres: ‘It stifles the devil-may-care spirit, the Dionysean, the creative spirit,’ he wrote. ‘It denounces Art, enthusiasm, heroic virtue.’
This disdain towards the urban landscape was further present in the dystopian texts set in Australian cities. Nevil Schute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach paints Melbourne as the final refuge from nuclear destruction—a site of alienation, half a world away from London. And Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book portrays the Australian metropolis as a dark and haunting dystopia in an incisive critique of colonialism and contemporary politics.
Prior to The Secret Life of Us, representations of Australian youth culture were often closely intertwined with drug literature—punctuating the vibrancy and devil-may-care attitude of young adulthood with the bleakness of substance abuse. Melbourne sat at the centre of much of this literature—taking off in the 1970s with the wave of youth counterculture that hit St Kilda as scantily clad students squished into the Crystal Ballroom to watch Nick Cave and the Birthday Party. Nycole Prowse and others have noted the hallucinatory quality of Australian cities in such novels as Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and Luke Davies’ Candy. For many years these texts constituted some of the few glimpses into Australian youth culture. Representations of youth in these seminal Australian texts are intrinsically linked to drug use, messy sex, and self-discovery. Whether that be in Garner’s idealistic images of a New Year’s Day acid trip on the St Kilda boardwalk, or the aimless wanderings of Christos Tsiolkas’ protagonist in Loaded, the city transforms into what Prowse calls a ‘phantasmagoric dream world of the urban spectacle’.
Yet The Secret Life of Us shows a different, more optimistic side to the recklessness of young adulthood, putting criticism of the city’s grime and grit to bed. The Melbourne at the heart of the show isn’t characterised by the dingily-lit alleyways and unkept public bathrooms of Loaded, nor the stifling heat and pent up emotions of Monkey Grip. Instead, it celebrates the vibrancy of youth—embracing the best of Garner’s Melbourne and Neighbours’ Ramsay Street.
The Secret Life of Us takes the sitcom out of the suburbs and relocates it to the inner city where young people either congregated or dreamed they could. At the time of the show’s launch, in 2001, these were some of the first Gen-X characters seen on Australian TV, and they reflected quite different values from their elder siblings. Their unique ambition and pragmatism is grounded in the five-day work week, woven together by celebratory neon snapshots of St Kilda life. The lap lanes at the sea baths swirl with Alex and Gabrielle’s secrets before their long days in high-intensity jobs. And when five o’clock hits, Crown Lager flows freely at Simon’s bar, and the apartment block rooftop hosts all-manner of merriments—from Sunday afternoon barbecues to spontaneous weddings. Kelly has countless meet-cutes in Catani Gardens, and Richie’s runs along the boardwalk pave the pathway for self-discovery. The show toes a fine line in representing the lives of young Australians—neither idealising them, steeped in nationalism, nor ridiculing the simplicity of their experiences.
The Secret Life of Us ultimately did away with decades of self-conscious representations of Australia as an alienating, unpleasant and quite frankly embarrassing place to spend one’s twenties. Instead, posited a city where its new generation of inhabitants feel comfortable. For many young viewers, the show reflected real life—unmagnified, unfiltered and uncynical. The Secret Life of Us is a coming of age, not just for the characters involved, but for authentic representations of young adulthood in the Australian cultural imaginary. This newly imagined Melbourne set the pace for decades of programming to come—from soaps like Offspring to the authentic portrayal of life on The Block in Redfern Now.