This Tuesday night will see the Seven Network premiere one of its most important investments of 2015. 800 Words is a new family drama steeped in the tradition of past hits such as Packed to the Rafters and Always Greener.
Its a program that Seven is hoping will bring the whole family together again watching the TV, and at the centre of the series is a 'Rafter’s' favourite, Erik Thompson.
Thompson plays the role of George Turner, a columnist for a popular Sydney newspaper and father of teenage kids, Shay (Melina Vidler) and Arlo (Benson Jack Anthony), life has been pretty good. His biggest concern is ensuring he pens exactly 800 Words for his weekly column. But all that changes when his wife dies suddenly.
Acting on impulse, George quits his job and tells his kids to pack their bags because he has just bought a house, sight unseen, over the internet in the fictional New Zealand seaside town of Weld.
“I think that it's a really good emotional foundation to start a show with.”
Erik Thompson tells me when we spoke recently,
“You’ve got a family who are obviously a little bit damaged and reeling from the loss of the mother. My character is in a bit of a crisis and makes a questionable decision.”
“I'm a bit of a fan of starting over stories. The family in this show head to this strange little country across the ditch and start life again. I was just intrigued to see what was going to happen.”
While much of 800 Words is focused on building a new life for one’s self and finding new beginnings in unexpected places, it’s a series that also focuses on dealing with grief.
“Once they've been there for a few weeks ... there’s that whole thing of you can't run away from your problems. It will catch up with you in the end.”
With such a big publicity build-up for the premiere, Thompson can’t help but feel nervous,
“I'm getting to that place now where all the dark comes into it. We've been working on this for a couple years, I'm really proud of it but you start to have your second thoughts at this stage.”
Thompson is also prepared for the inevitable comparisons with former role of Dave Rafter, both shows have a similar feel, and its certainly no-coincidence that 800 Words has been placed in the same time-slot that Rafters once dominated.
“Rafters was such a loved show that anything I do will always get compared to it, I still get asked on a daily basis when Rafters is coming back. I hope people are prepared to let Rafters go for a while and fall into something new.”
“Rafters was such a massive show. At the same time, things have changed so much in television that getting Rafters ratings is sort of impossible these days.”
This new project is clearly one that Thompson is very passionate about; getting it produced has been his main focus for the past two years.
“I helped them with the pitch. Seven loved it, but it took about a year to move forward. We got the green light in about September and shot it this year - February, March, April. It's been a long journey, but I always remember that moment I had when I read the outline and thought it would be a really good thing for me to do after Rafters and something which I was really drawn to.”
While some critics have already criticised 800 Words for being too simplistic and family focused, Thompson is quick to reject comparisons with some of the complex character dramas that are achieving acclaim overseas.
“I do like watching the darker stuff, but I don't think we have the luxury of making that kind of stuff in Australia. It's got a very specific, small, niche audience. Those kind of dramas find it hard to survive in this country.
There's a long tradition of strong family drama in Australia. Look at shows like Always Greener, Packed to the Rafters, SeaChange and now this. I don't know why more people don't try and do this kind of television because it's perfect for a commercial network. They want nice big broad audiences. These days, more than any time, you need something that's going to appeal to multi-generations.
The thing is they're actually quite tricky to do well. You've got to get the tone right and you've got to have the right writers. James Griffin, who is the series creator and principal writer on 800 Words, is a very clever man. We've found some really talented people to put it all together.”
In an Australian TV landscape that now so heavily dominated by copycat reality franchises, Thompson is a strong believer that viewers are ready for something new.
“People are exhausted by reality, Hopefully the ground is well-fertilized for a new drama to arrive.”