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Australia, the Pinup in America’s TV Imagination

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau chief. Sign up to get it by email. Here’s where to find all our Oceania coverage.

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The way a country is seen through the lens of Hollywood can be a powerful thing, so what are we to make of Australia’s presence in two of Netflix’s most talked about shows: “The Good Place” and “Ozark”?

If you haven’t seen them, here’s a quick rundown.

“The Good Place” is an “an ingenious metaphysical sitcom,” according to our critic James Poniewozik, which involves four characters trying to move from hell (the bad place) to heaven. The new season sends them to Sydney for a chance at redemption.

• “Ozark” is a dark drama about an upper-middle-class family caught up in money laundering for Mexican drug cartels. Our reviewer compared it to “Breaking Bad.” And this season they’re hoping to flee the mayhem, to Mullumbimby.

There’s already been quite a lot of chatter in Australia about “The Good Place” and its bad Aussie accents. I don’t think I’m spoiling much by pointing out that they are in part intentional according to the show’s creator, Mike Schur, who is well known for affectionate skewering in his previous creations, “Parks and Recreation,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

We have a big profile of him in this week’s magazine, pointing out his strict “no jerks” rule on set.

But for “The Good Place,” he seems especially eager to toy with Australian-American relations, and not just with the accent: The next episode involves a restaurant called the Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet, which Mr. Schur described as “a reverse Outback Steakhouse” in which the United States has its culture misappropriated and made cliché.

I suspect Australians will like that more than the bakery in the first episode named “We Crumb From a Land Down Under.”

But what I found myself wondering as I watched both of these shows, and finished reading Liane Moriarty’s wellness-obsessed new novel, “Nine Perfect Strangers,” is whether Australia is becoming a global brand for creative escape and rejuvenation. Our dry, sunny isle far from swampy Washington seems to be the latest pinup for the American desire to check out and start over.

It reminds me a bit of Hawaii in the 1970s and ’80s (the era of “Fantasy Island,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Magnum P.I.”) and more recently with “Lost.” Or to go further back, it’s what Mexico was for Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and the Beats in the 1950s and ’60s — a place of great beauty where familiar rules and conflicts could be sidestepped or ignored.

Australia, of course, is far more rules driven than any of those fantasies, but maybe, just maybe, that’s also what many Americans are craving? Or maybe they have no idea and don’t really care about such details.

“There is an element of it as a remote site for pilgrimages,” our critic Mr. Poniewozik said when I asked him to interpret Hollywood’s preoccupation with Australia.

Regardless, my guess is that we’ll keep seeing more of this Australia longing. The United States in particular is a nation built on restlessness, and its creative class is increasingly alienated from the politics of President Trump.

The desire for a cleanse and a long journey to another side of the world — whether in real life or in imagined stories — seems destined to intensify. Silicon Valley has already called dibs on New Zealand so maybe the rest of America, Hollywood included, will claim lovely Oz.

To which I say, come along, fellow Yanks and Cali-creatives! Spring is here, I saw a humpback whale this week, and as long as you steer clear of Parliament, Australia is far more likely to be your good place than your bad place.

Plus, thanks to the magic of digital subscriptions, we’ll always have The New York Times to keep us connected to the wider world.

And speaking of Times connections, we’ll be hosting two dinnners in Sydney on Oct. 17 and 18 for small groups of readers, to discuss our journalism, your reading habits and what we can do to build a more engaged community.

Sometimes, though, the most revealing stories stand apart from the main narrative. Consider this deep dive on Chinese health care, revealing the flaws of the country’s medical system, where scalpers hawk medical visits for a fee.

Or this feature on a new game show in which contestants face an array of questions about President Xi Jinping’s favorite books, the meaning of his speeches, and his formative years in a rural village.

Or this smaller piece about a Chinese journalist accused of slapping a man in Birmingham, England, at an event focused on Hong Kong’s erosion of freedom, rule of law and autonomy under Chinese rule.

It’s all part of our effort to cover China from every angle — and now we’re also encouraging smart discussion with a new Facebook group dedicated to China coverage. Here’s how to join.

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President Trump has long sold himself as a self-made billionaire, but an epic, yearlong Times investigation found that he received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire — much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s.

Here are 11 key takeaways from the investigation.

And here’s an episode of The Daily, explaining it all with help from the reporters involved in the story.

The Deni Ute Muster tends to be covered as pure revelry, the “bogan Burning man,” but Isabella Kwai and Asanka Brendon Ratnayake found that this year’s festival — in a moment of severe drought — carried deeper meaning for those dealing with depression and loneliness in rural areas.

Their story (Isabella wrote, Asanka shot the photos and I edited) is part of our ongoing effort to cover regional Australia with nuance and thoughtfulness. More stories along those lines are on the way.

A few other stories from Australia and New Zealand to highlight this week:

In Australia, Cervical Cancer Could Soon Be Eliminated: The government’s program to distribute HPV vaccine for free to girls more than a decade ago is paying healthy dividends that other countries could learn from.

No Dogs in the House: This Australia Diary from a reader in Sutherland Shire will make all pet owners smile. And it’s got one of my favorite words in the world: “habibi.” No word in English does it justice.

Australia Scraps Tax on Tampons, Once Considered a ‘Luxury’: After nearly two decades of argument, tampons and other sanitary products will be exempt from a 10 percent tax beginning next year.

Fork Over Passwords or Pay the Price: Travelers to New Zealand who refuse to disclose passwords for digital devices during forced searches could face prosecution and fines of more than $3,000. It appears to be the world’s first system of penalties for refusing to unlock a device.

• Ardern and Gillard: Also, don’t miss this video of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, and Julia Gillard, Australia’s former prime minister, being interviewed together for The New York Times New Rules Summit.

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Now, for a lighter read that was especially popular with Australian readers this week: Tim Wu’s Op-Ed about the value of hobbies and mediocrity.

He’s complaining mainly about Americans obsessed with achievement — yes, even in leisure — but maybe Australians can also relate to the encroachment of professionalism on activities meant to be fun?

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It’s time for our monthly guide to Netflix in Australia, which helped inspire my little essay above.

In addition to “The Good Place,” there are new offerings with Toni Collette (in a dramedy called “Wanderlust”) and new horror movies and documentaries to check out.

While you’re at it, don’t miss this week’s culture edition of The New York Times Magazine, which includes a big profile of Lady Gaga and one of the smartest essays on “good” culture and identity that anyone will write this decade — by Wesley Morris, of course.

Damien Cave is the Australia bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s been writing foreign affairs and pop culture FOREVER. Follow him on Twitter: @damiencave.


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