When "SeaChange" went on the air in Australia in 1998, it became an overnight sensation and rode that crest for three seasons, all the while remaining under the radar for the rest of the world. The rest of us got our chance to check it out in 2019 when a fourth season was produced after 20 years and AcornTV picked up the entire charming run. I'm appreciative, since the show now ranks as one of my favorites ever.
It’s a typical TV set-up — big city person moves to the country to escape their life and achieve simplicity, but finds they don’t quite fit in. "SeaChange" offers enough complexity into this dynamic — and enough talent portraying it — that the situation doesn’t always determine what unfolds and often the clichés are subverted.
The series stars Sigrid Thornton as high-powered lawyer Laura Gibson, who following revelations about her husband, packs up and moves the kids to Pearl Bay to take a job as the local magistrate. Overseeing the local criminal trials gives a wide breadth that allows introductions to all sorts of citizens and puts Laura at odds with her neighbors, as if her awkward personality wasn’t enough.
At the opposite end stands Bob Jelly (John Howard), the local real estate developer and City Council president whose schemes to bring in tourist dollars are always geared toward an eventual pathway to his wallet. It’s a “Bob’s a jerk but he’s our jerk” situation for the town and Howard plays the character with enough befuddlement tucked into his arrogance that you can’t quite come to hate him.
Among the numerous recurring townsfolk, Kerry Armstrong stands out as Bob’s wife, Heather. She’s at first an apparent bubble-headed Stepford Wife type, but as the series progresses, Armstrong really injects growth into the character while retaining what was funny about her, offering her dignity and a place as one of the best characters in the series. Also of note are Kate Atkinson as the local deputy determined to marry Laura’s surfer boy court clerk Angus (Tom Long), despite his own confusion on the matter, and local trailer park owner Kevin (Kevin Harrington), a sincere but simple handyman whose spotlight moment is at the end of each episode when he sits on the beach with his son and hands out some curious, roundabout words of wisdom.
The revival show maintains the same noticeable structure, tone, and pace of the original series, but less of the original cast make a showing, but thank goodness Thornton, Howard, Armstrong and Harrington are all on hand. Several of the new additions do well in living up to the spirit of the original, notably Katrina Milosevic as the local police constable, a role miles away from her impressive work on "Wentworth."
"SeaChange" is particularly adept at world-building, providing a constant stream of local lore and character histories stretching back decades within each episode, making Pearl Bay and the people who live there feel three-dimensional, as well as giving a solid indication of what Laura Gibson is up against when she tries to fit in. Thankfully, Thornton is so skilled at the role of the overly-dramatic and often self-absorbed lawyer that you’re not sure you’d ever want Laura to fit in anyhow — the awkward tension and constant failure create a compulsive charm that you wouldn’t necessarily want to live, but there’s plenty of delight in watching unfold.