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Five Bedrooms: dreaming of home ownership

Five Bedrooms (2019). Supplied by Peacock.

In April this year, in response to the pandemic, the Australian Government announced a suspension of the content quotas that usually require networks to screen specific amounts of locally made drama, children’s and documentary programming. While still requiring networks to show 55 per cent Australian content for overall programming, for some creators, the suspension of quotas meant some productions and development had to be put on hold, even before the full extent of coronavirus lockdowns arrived.

Meanwhile, early on in Melbourne’s second lockdown, two of my housemates announced they were moving out. For them, the time had come; for me, it felt like I had just lost the already shaky foothold I still had in the world.

In between figuring out the practicalities of finding a new living arrangement during one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, I wondered about my options in the future, as I slowly edge towards the age when everyone expects you to leave share houses in the past. While I have the privilege of a family who could support me if I really needed it, like many young Australians, my chances of affording a house in Melbourne, let alone in a regional area, are slim. Even as a renter there are fewer options when you don’t come with a plus-one.

The last time I’d grappled with this sense of aloneness was when I spent two weeks sick in bed last year. It was the first time I’d been really sick while living away from my family, and I found myself dearly wishing I had someone who I could not only split bills with, but whom I could reasonably expect to look after me when I’m not feeling well.

The only logical way to cope with days on end stuck in bed is to binge watch TV shows, and that’s when I discovered the Australian Network 10 program Five Bedrooms (2019-). Created by the team behind the much-loved family drama Offspring (2010-2017), the series is based on a simple premise: five 30–40-somethings meet at a wedding, where they find themselves at the dreaded singles table. They get talking.

The show’s protagonist, Ainslee, has a theory: ‘I put it to you that every couple in this room is happy in some way because they own a house.’ Heather, Ainslee’s landlord (played by Doris Younane, who steals the show from this very first scene), has a matter-of-fact response:

‘You’re confusing happiness with real estate’.

But the group of five doesn’t see the distinction. They aren’t ready to give up on the promise of the good life that comes with owning (in their case at least a fifth of) your own home. None of them can afford to buy a house alone, but with five, it might just be possible. They go ahead and splurge on a two-storey, five-bedroom house in suburban Melbourne (the real house used for filming is in Malvern in Melbourne’s south-east). Of course, in reality, this would set you back over half a million each, based on median prices in Malvern­ for a five-bedroom place – not exactly affordable housing by any stretch.

Now that restrictions have mostly lifted, any dip in the market due to the pandemic (as of September 2020 Melbourne house prices had fallen by 4.6 per cent since March) might soon be a distant memory.

Completing Five Bedroom’s group of five are Harry, a doctor in his thirties who still lives with his Mum, Ben, a tradie with boyish charm, and Liz, a successful lawyer who is hiding her recent break-up at work. ‘I’ve seen the people who make partner,’ she says. ‘They don’t have messy divorces and live in share houses.’

Implicit in the show’s plot is the fact these five people are past the point where it’s ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ to live with people who aren’t intimate partners or family. They are excelling, both financially and professionally, yet are still portrayed as limited in their real estate options. When they do the rounds of their new neighbours to invite them to a housewarming, they get lots of confused responses. ‘Are you married?’ ‘No, it’s a collective.’ ‘Oh, is this a religious thing?’

Five Bedrooms has that particular understated quality that can make Australian dramas uniquely lovable. Shows like Offspring and Packed to the Rafters (2008-2013) were loved for their depiction of messy but relatable families, and this show is endearing in the same way, only in this case, the family isn’t conventional. It’s made up of five adults whose lives haven’t turned out the way they thought – and not in a cutesy, 20-something way where they can all spend their days drinking coffee on the couch and you just know they’ll all find love by the end of the first season.

Beyond the premise, there is real heart to Five Bedrooms. Harry’s struggle to come out to his mother, and then to balance having his own life with caring for her, is particularly affecting. The budding romance between the recently separated Heather and the deeper-than-you-think Ben is a good fun. It’s also a delight to watch a show where the two standout characters—Heather (Doris Younane) and Liz (Kat Stewart) are women over forty.

Yet it should be said that while the make-up of its five lead characters goes some way towards reflecting the diversity of Australian society (Harry’s family is Indian-Australian, and Younane, who plays Heather, is of Lebanese descent), the show could still do better in this respect. It also seems remiss in this day and age to have an Australian show that doesn’t feature any Indigenous characters, especially when the question of owning land is at stake.

What it does well at representing, though, is that not everyone fits into a family unit or a couple, and achieving the so-called Australian dream of home ownership is harder if you don’t. What makes Five Bedrooms so refreshing is the fact that so much of our society is still designed for those typical forms of relationship.

Even the shape of the restrictions during Australia’s lockdowns has, at times, appeared to be based on the persistent assumption that society is made up of pairs and family units. While intimate partners were allowed to see each other during the entirety of both lockdowns, the Victorian Government only introduced a bubble system for single people living alone and single parents in the final weeks of Stage 4.

Perhaps it’s the acknowledgment that life doesn’t necessarily look like a family household of Mum, Dad and two kids that made Five Bedrooms resonate with its viewers, both in Australia where it was renewed for a second season, and overseas – the show’s first season aired on the BBC and is also available to view on Peacock, a new streaming service in the United States.

Five Bedrooms was made with ‘major production investment’ from Screen Australia and financed with support from Film Victoria. Along with Neighbours, it was one of the first Australian productions to get back up and running after shutdowns, and our screen landscape will be better for it. While the Australian Government has recently announced the reintroduction of modified content quotas, the impact of this year’s suspension will surely go beyond the end of the year.

Five Bedrooms might not be the most ground-breaking program on television, but it’s a show that reflects an aspect of life that many other parts of our society do not. Without quotas for Australian content or proper funding for our national broadcasters, we risk losing shows like this – and other, even more vital works like Redfern Now (2012-2013) and Stateless (2020) – and in doing so, we lose the chance to make Australian viewers feel less alone.

Rosie Hunt’s writing has appeared in M/C JournalLip MagazineRACT Journeys and Aphra Magazine. She lives in Melbourne.