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I won’t shut up about ‘The Secret Life of Us’, here’s why

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

The show depicted the messiness of twentysomething life in a refreshingly honest way that still rings true today.

Every human possesses annoying quirks. I have a whole host of them, some more life-ruining than others. Fairly low down on the scale of annoying quirks, but still entirely annoying, is my predilection for convincing people to join in on my obsession with something.

It can be anything. A type of chip, an album, a TV show, a popstar, or two celebrities rekindling their relationship almost 20 years later (love you Bennifer). Once I’m captivated by something, I simply will not shut up about it until I’ve lured those around me into also being obsessed.


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The endless hours spent at home during Melbourne’s lockdown last year made it a breeding ground for many new obsessions: homemade ravioli and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album were both up there, but nothing was as all-consuming as the iconic Australian TV show, The Secret Life of Us.

I have vague memories of the early noughties show playing on TV when I was a kid, but as it wasn’t child-friendly I never actually got to watch it. I mainly recall being intrigued by the adverts for it. I longed to be old enough to watch such spicy content. Sex! Sharehouse living! Drug use! House parties! Cute crop tops and low waisted pants! And then one day I was old enough, but by that time the show had been relegated to the dusty recesses of my brain.

This brings me back to last year’s lockdown. Netflix, Stan and Binge had been well and truly run dry, and I was desperately searching for a new show to distract me from the mundanity of life in a pandemic. My requirements were that it had to have the aforementioned sex, drugs and house parties (all of which were absent from our housebound lives at the time) and ideally, it was to be set in Melbourne.

I’ve always liked shows that are set in places that I live or have lived before. There’s something comforting about seeing characters navigate streets that you’ve walked yourself, or having a nightmarish argument over a pint at a pub you’ve also frequented.

After sharing my requirements with Google, The Secret Life of Us was recommended to me. Created by John Edwards and Amanda Higgs, the show premiered in 2001 and was the first of its kind in Australia. Previously, young adults had to turn to American dramas to see their life stage somewhat reflected back to them, but the glossiness and American-ness of shows like Melrose Place and Friends meant they never really hit home in the way that The Secret Life of Us did.

As Brigid Delaney writes in her excellent retrospective of the show for The Guardian, “In lesser-hands, The Secret Life of Us could have easily been embarrassing or tone-deaf – always a problem when people try to make edgy, youth-focused drama. But it aired for four seasons on free-to-air television and reflected a very contemporary Australia.”

Focused on a group of twentysomething Melbourne friends and set in St Kilda (a very different St Kilda to the one us Melburnians know today, mind you), the show explored the painful, exhilarating and confusing nature of young adulthood. Housemates Evan, Kelly and Alex (played by Samuel Johnson, Deborah Mailman and Claudia Karvan, who would each go on to become much loved Australian actors) were the beating heart of the show.

As someone who’s lived in sharehouses for the last decade, and probably will for many more with the way the world’s going, the show’s honest portrayal of the joys and challenges of sharehouse living in your twenties is what initially drew me in.

It expertly captures the minutiae of daily life with your friends: a casual joint being passed around in the lounge after work, rambunctious shared dinners, a round of piping hot teas when someone’s had a crappy day, beers on the rooftop before heading to a house party where you sit on a couch and repeatedly tell your housemate just how much you love and appreciate them.

As Brigid, who was in her twenties when The Secret Life of Us first debuted, continues, “I remember DVD box sets being passed around groups of friends, many of whom still describe it as one of the best Australian shows ever made. That’s what I think, too. The Secret Life of Us showed us a side of ourselves we hadn’t seen much on the small screen before, and helped remind us that maybe our messy, complicated, unconventional lives and loves were OK after all.”

Aside from its depiction of sharehouse living, it also explored topics like love, sex, grief, mental health and identity with the nuance they deserved. Whether it’s the plot line about Richie, a conventionally good looking actor on the come up who realises he’s gay while in a heterosexual relationship with his girlfriend Miranda, Will’s descent into a nervous breakdown following the sudden death of his girlfriend Sam, or Alex and Evan’s entangled mess of a love story, the show never shied away from the complexities of twentysomething life.

It’s the show that got me through lockdown last year – the characters began to feel like family, and it was the only thing I had to look forward to after a gruelling day at work, stuck indoors fighting off a wave of anxiety. So, as I am prone to doing, I campaigned my friends, imploring them to watch the show, too. “You’ve never seen sharehouse living depicted so honestly!” I exclaimed. “Evan is just like a Melbourne soft boy who continually leads you on and pretends to know more about feminism than you do! He’s toxic but also undeniably hot!”

But my pleas fell on deaf ears, bar one or two friends who were worn down enough by my enthusiasm to give the show a go. But recently I started noticing lots of discussion about it on social media. People on Instagram and Twitter were making memes about it, and friends I’d never even spoken to about the show would bring it up unprovoked, gushing about how great it was. I had found my audience. Finally, I could talk at length about my love-hate obsession with Evan and how much I wanted to do karaoke with Miranda at the Fu Bar without people’s eye’s glazing over.

The reason? It had been added to Netflix, of course. Last year I’d begrudgingly binged the show on 7Plus, and been subjected to a barrage of awful ads every 15 or so minutes. My love for the series was so strong that it could withstand this assault on the senses, but I have a feeling it would have put a lot of other prospective viewers of.

Now, The Secret Life of Us is getting another life, with millennials and Gen Zs who connect with the show in the same way Brigid Delaney and her peers did 20 years ago. While technology might have moved on and brought with it a whole array of issues the show can’t explore, the endearingly chaotic nature of your twenties has remained the same. And, as fashion is wont to do, the trend cycle has come full circle and 2001 is very 2021, so at the very least you’ll enjoy it for the outfits.

To read more about the impact of ‘The Secret Life of Us’ on Australian television, head here.

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