The seemingly straightforward Australian melodrama “A Place to Call Home,” from creator Bevan Lee, more closely resembles a collection of nesting dolls parceling out secrets one by one. Available to American viewers for the first time on December 1, via the streaming service Acorn TV, the series adapts the structure of the daytime soap to the tale of fearless nurse Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp), as she tries to rebuild her life in the rural hamlet of Inverness, outside Sydney, in 1953. With lugubrious pacing and an aversion to salacious details, “A Place to Call Home” is, like Sarah herself, easy to dismiss but difficult to shake. “You misrepresented her,” says town doctor Jack Duncan (Craig Hall). “She is a lot more than blandly efficient.”
Whereas primetime potboilers (“Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder”) turn melodrama’s age-old tropes to new social ends, and today’s period pieces (“Mad Men,” “Masters of Sex”) apply modern techniques to their historical backdrops, “A Place to Call Home” embraces the old-fashioned. The series unapologetically inhabits a faraway world of parish bake sales and oceanic voyages, and it admirably refuses to treat Sarah’s tough, unsentimental independence as some kind of anachronism. We learn in the early going that she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and witnessed the Nazi invasion of Paris, and she responds to the constraints of sexism as did many women of her time: determined to fight for a place at the table.
The result is an invigorating portrait of the often ignored feminism that linked suffragettes to the Second Wave. An unmarried, progressive, Jewish woman struggling to square wartime experience with postwar convention, Sarah emerges as a sort of Aussie Betty Friedan, sounding the themes of privacy, equality, and freedom that lend “A Place to Call Home” its bristling intelligence. The series won’t enthrall you with shocking twists and breathless cliffhangers, but it frames the unspooling mystery of its protagonist’s adventurous life as a counter-narrative of the entire era — recalling, in less gritty fashion, the acclaimed series “Call the Midwife,” which similarly approaches a generational portrait through the lens of the everyday.
Though its politics evolve organically, never relying on grandstanding monologues or long-winded lectures, “A Place to Call Home” is admittedly more deliberate than many series of its ilk. Sarah lands in Inverness at the behest of handsome, wealthy landowner George Bligh (Brett Climo), whose mother (Noni Hazlehurst) deploys her fierce traditionalism to control the hunky, troubled heir, James (David Berry); his free-spirited sister, Anna (Abby Earl); and his dissatisfied new wife, Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood). The Bligh family’s rather rudimentary secrets and lies fail to generate the same interest as Sarah’s multilayered arc, but their collective clash with her more radical sensibilities is promising nonetheless.
Ultimately, the lovely, engaging drama hidden within the series’ formulaic structure rests with Sarah, in part because her autonomy is rooted in the conviction that women’s public power is inextricable from their ability to lead private lives. “It’s a very dirty word to me,” she says to Duncan of “interrogate” — an anti-authoritarian sentiment that is, like “A Place to Call Home,” anything but bland.
The fog of war similarly settles over the joint Australian-Singaporean production “Serangoon Road,” populated by traumatic memories of Japanese occupation and the tense present of the United States’ expanding war in Vietnam. Set in Singapore in 1964, the grim, hothouse city worn down by a long succession of colonial interventions, the series dresses an effective procedural in unsatisfying serial garb: each episode focuses on a new case for raffish Australian P.I. Sam Callaghan (Don Hany) and his colleagues in the Cheng Detective Agency, all while he investigates the mysterious death of employer Patricia Cheng’s (Joan Chen) late husband.
The result is an imbalance between the intriguing standalone narratives — fugitive American servicemen, displaced wives, street riots, and foreign corporations — and the larger arc, which stutters along in fits and starts. At its best, though, “Serangoon Road” speeds through the array of widows, thieves, spies, and toughs that wash up on Southeast Asia’s war-torn shores, as if Philip Marlowe found himself in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”
Despite the periodic stiffness of the writing (“Killing very easy. Saving very difficult,” a Singaporean sage explains to Sam in one dreadfully obvious interlude), the refreshing candor “Serangoon Road” directs at craven interlopers and local profiteers reveals the imperial project to be the underlying cause of the city’s visible distress. “Sam, you can’t go to war over everyone who’s been dealt a shitty hand,” Callaghan’s friend Macca (Tony Martin), a dissolute Australian journalist, warns in one early episode. “You’ll go mad. Pick your battles.”
In both the remarkable “A Place to Call Home,” which ably transcends its limitations, and the reliable “Serangoon Road,” which imposes limitations that come to seem extraneous, it’s this blurring of personal conflicts and global conflagrations that shores up the overlapping histories on display. “The past is a foreign country,” as the epigraph of “A Place to Call Home” reads. “They do things differently there.”
The first seasons of “A Place to Call Home” and “Serangoon Road” are available in their entirety via Acorn TV beginning Monday, Dec. 1.