Can Erik Thomson save scripted drama in Australia?

When YouTube clips of cats and dogs are topping the ratings, you wouldn’t think there’d be much motivation for the commercial television networks to spend money on local drama.

Channel 7’s recent string of funny animal shows — Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud, Dogs Make You Laugh Out Loud, Pets Make You Laugh Out Loud, Animals Make You Laugh Out Loud, and of course, Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud 2 — routinely won their time slots by comfortable margins.

The triumph of such cheap programming over more heralded fare seemed to set a dangerous precedent for scripted drama, which traditionally costs more than reality television to produce.

But just as these clip shows appeared out of nowhere to dominate the ratings, Channel 7 has literally called off the dogs, pulling the pin on the Laugh Out Loud series and reaffirming its commitment to scripted content.

Enter silver fox Erik Thomson and his new drama, 800 Words. Set to air this September on Channel 7, the show sees Thomson playing a recently widowed journalist who gives up his job and buys a house on impulse in a remote part of New Zealand, much to the displeasure of his two teenage kids.

The series, a co-production with NZ’s South Pacific Pictures, is Thomson’s third major production with Channel 7, after playing Dr Mitch Stevens on All Saints for many years and the much-loved Dave Rafter on Packed to the Rafters.

“It’s something that everyone can watch together,” Thomson says. “It’s family viewing, but not in that Disney kind of way. It’s a warm, engaging story that’ll leave you feeling good at the end of every episode.”

In the series, Thomson’s character makes some rather questionable decisions. That’s something he thinks viewers can relate to.

“I think we’ve all made questionable decisions in the past, things we thought were good ideas and going through the process found out they weren’t such good ideas,” he says.

“But everything works out in the end.”

Part of the shoot took place at the picturesque North Piha Beach, about 45 minutes out of Auckland, but it wasn’t all fun and games for Thomson. In the first week of filming, he had a mini-breakdown.

“I was in just about every scene,” he remembers. “There literally weren’t enough hours in the day for me to prepare and learn my lines. After that, I had to be really disciplined in getting on top of stuff.

“But I knew the story would be accessible and engaging to a wide audience. I instantly thought there would be sympathy for the characters that had just lost their mother, and that people would want them to succeed and get through the difficult stages of grief.

“I cared about what was going to going to happen to these characters, so I thought that was a good sign.”

The network believes the show will take its place in a long string of successful family dramas.

“There’s nothing else quite like 800 Words on television,” says Julie McGauran, the Seven Network’s Head of Drama. “This heart-warming story of a man trying to make a fresh start has already captured the hearts of the media and we think it will really resonate with Australian audiences.

“We have been proud to present family dramas such as Home and Away, Winners and Losers and Packed to the Rafters, as well as top rating productions like Catching Milat and INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. The success of these shows tells us that Australian dramas are very popular with Australian audiences and are as relevant today as they have ever been.”

800 Words starts this month on Channel 7.