Like many surfing-themed films and shows, ABC TV’s eight-part, 70s-set series Barons is drawn to the water as if by magnet, the drama interrupted by countless sunkissed montages that have a ruminative quality, as if the show is catching its breath. Time seems to stand still in these moments, which juxtapose board-riding humans against vast blue water and shimmering skies, delivering nice vibes and a particular benefit for production design: there’s no need for era-specific costumes or decor on the waves.
Created by Michael Lawrence, John Molloy and Liz Doran, the series follows a bunch of entrepreneurial surfers whose stories loosely parallel the formation of Australian surfing brands such as Rip Curl and Quiksilver. Snapper (Ben O’Toole) and Trotter (Sean Keenan) are pals who work together making wetsuits, but fall out and become bitter rivals. In the first episode Trotter articulates a light bulb idea to his fiance, Tracy (Nee Chan): ordinary shorts are no good to surf in, so his plan is to make some that are. This would not just address a practical need, he says, but help sell an idea “of paradise, of summers that never end”.
A long history of the beach being used as glistening scaffolding for music videos and soft drink and shampoo commercials has turned Mother Nature’s majestically designed coastal scenery into a bit of a visual cliche. Director Bruce Brown accompanied an extensive voiceover track with tonnes of beach footage in his 1966 cult classic The Endless Summer, but it’s harder to get away with such intense focus on sand and surf these days, given even the most handsomely shot surfing films – including the recent Australian documentary Facing Monsters – can feel exhaustingly pretty.
The writers of Barons (Liz Doran, Matt Cameron and Marieke Hardy) seem aware that the feuding entrepreneurs is the most interesting aspect of the drama, but the show drifts away from personal stakes and business machinations towards vague impressions of hippy life way back yonder – capturing a holy trifecta of drinking, drug taking and bonking. The Vietnam war lingers in the background, unseen but registering some impact on the characters’ lives, particularly when young Aboriginal man and surfboard shaper Reg (Hunter Page-Lochard) is conscripted to serve via The Birthday Ballot.
At the pub, after the ballot results are broadcast, Reg’s best friend, Dani (Sophia Forrest), announces a quintessentially “Strayan” way of managing the situation: “Let’s get royally pissed!,” she exclaims to a receptive audience. Soon Snapper climbs on top of a table, grabs two wires and electrocutes himself. This moment is intended to illustrate the character’s impetuousness, but reflects the show’s tendency for awkward moments stuck between comedy and something more serious – that are neither dramatic nor funny ha-ha.
Barons was directed with a soft, warm glow that conveys a sense of rounding potentially pointy edges. These low-key vibes are fine when the characters are hanging out, doing the hippy stoner surfer thing, but become an issue when the show aspires for high-impact drama – a plotline involving a character being sent to juvenile prison, for instance, feeling tonally out of place and under-developed. The performances are decent, albeit pared back, none of the actors managing – in the first four episodes at least (which form the extent of this review) – to convey a sense of escalation. If anything Barons loses steam as the rolling time progresses.
Although the principal characters are adults, the series has the twang of a coming-of-age narrative, reflecting a broader tendency to use the Australian beach as a background for stories about formative experiences – think 1976’s Storm Boy, 1977’s Summer City, 1981’s Puberty Blues, 2015’s Drown and 2018’s Breath. The latter — directed by Simon Baker and adapted from a Tim Winton novel — is a highlight of the genre, scaling back the shiny Coke-commercial look using colour grading that has misty and melancholic qualities, full of grays and whites, as if emulating seafoam or distant memories.
In Barons, the frame periodically contracts to a boxed-in ratio and displays a grainy Instagram filter-like effect, mimicking the aesthetic of old 8mm films: a cruder way to evoke the past. At its best the show presents a pleasant, intermittently interesting context to return to, but it feels hazy and muted – like a faded tattoo from a distant summer, lacking colour and detail.