DVD Review: “Water Rats” (1996 – 2002)

“Water Rats Season 1 – 6” (1996 – 2002)


177 Episodes

Created by: John Hugginson & Tony Morphett

Featuring: Colin Friels, Catherine McClements, Mouche Phillips, Toni Scanlan, Steve Bisley, Peter Bensley, Aaron Pedersen, Jay Laga’aia

Det Sgt Jack Christey: “I mean, you know, it’s a simple request. I ask them to find a yacht in Sydney Harbour and they can’t do it. I mean, how hard is that? A yacht is a very, very large object.” [as he walks away, Tommy mutters]

Sr. Constable Tommy Tavita: “Yeah, there are tens of thousands of them on the Harbour you moron.”

This  month sees the release of Water Rats – Collection 1 (Volume 1-4) on DVD, a 24 disc box set collecting the first half of the series which will be followed later by a second set, here I will reflect on this first set, the characters as well as general review of the stories and what it has to offer almost twenty years later. When the next box set is released I will cover that period at that time.

Over twenty years ago the television show “Water Rats” (1996 – 2002) started airing on Australian television, on the Nine Network, it had an expansive cast was filmed on the Sydney Harbor and involved not only the criminal aspects of the Harbor Patrol but their personal lives as well, if only in a limited capacity. There is no doubt that the early years of the show were the best, it had some interesting storylines as well as some unique characters that worked very well together, with a mixture of new young actors as well as some experienced older veterans that were as recognizable now as they were then. In terms of diversity there was a Samoan character as well as an openly Gay character although neither of these aspects was commented on within the show much.

“Water Rats” premiered on 12 February 1996, and ran for six seasons and 177 episodes. Colin Friels and Catherine McClements were the original stars of the series and were instrumental in the show’s early success. Friels was the most well known of the cast, he had been  a mainstay of the Australian acting community for over three decades at that point.

I wanted to review this television series for a few reasons; one was that I had never seen an episode as I had assumed it was a bit old fashioned as well as not very interesting to me on a personal level – cops on the harbor… boring! The second reason was that as a younger person I had become fond of the Australian television show “Blue Heelers” (1994-2006), to be honest I still have a weakness for that show, that revolved around a small-town police station with outsized stories and a wide variety of characters that came and went over its twelve-year run. The creators “Blue Heelers” were also responsible for the creation and airing of “Water Rats”. The final reason was to compare what we now call a ‘procedural’ against some of the similar shows in this decade. What I discovered was, for me, quite interesting as well as eye-opening to the quality of the show, the actors and the storyline – this was a high-quality production that not only introduced some interesting characters but took full advantage of the locale as well as the kind of city Sydney was turning into on the eve of the Olympics as well as the new millennium.

After a only few episodes of viewing the most obvious and striking element of the series are the varied locations that are used to illustrate the geographic differences that the Police have to deal with on a daily basis in Sydney. The good news is that this element is not far from the truth as anyone that has visited Sydney can tell you. Not only that but the Sydney Harbor is known around the world with some of the most iconic landmarks on the planet. So, the producers made the wise decision to use real locations as well as use the harbor to film on water action which would have made the production not only complicated but also extremely expensive, particularly in the 1990s. Some of the famous locations were Shark Island, Sydney Harbor Bridge, The Gap, White Bay Power Station, Fort Denison, The Rocks, Middle Harbour, Long Bay Correctional Centre, North Headand the Middle Head Fortifications. There are may reasons that location shooting is important but for this show it all leads to the authenticity of the entire series, sure there are many locations that are used repeatedly but there are very few scenes shot on a sound stage that are readily identifiable as such, the main ones being office scenes as well as interrogation scenes which are completely understandable. Location shooting has several advantages over filming on a studio set, the main one being the illusion of reality can be stronger; on a set, it is hard to replicate real-world wear and tear, as well as architectural details, and the vastness of a city is difficult to recreate on a backlot.

The actors that were cast at least in the first three seasons of the show were of various genders, ages and to a certain extent cultures. There is no doubt that at the beginning of the series there was an attempt to have everyone involved in one way or another but after a while it becomes obvious that the main storylines are based around the characters of Holloway and Goldstein played by Colin Friels and Catherine McClements respectively. Both are and were at the time, experienced stage and screen actors who share natural chemistry onscreen which leads to some ‘will they’ or ‘wont they’ moments, which do ultimately resolve themselves in natural way entering the fourth season. There is much made of both characters backgrounds in him being from a rough family as well as her being Jewish, although nothing is ever really resolved with either as the producers decided to make the episodes more procedural in nature and their backgrounds are only used as coloring for the series. This was a missed opportunity, I wonder if there was ever a rebooted version in a limited run if some of the cultural disparities would be involved, I would certainly hope so.

The other aspect of the show was the use of a boat crew that included the Samoan Jay Laga’aia as the only non white face in the entire cast, which maybe at the time was a stretch but now seems a little like a missed opportunity especially as the rest of the crew involved in the show are extremely white and in some cases may be slightly racist in their views, which again because there is no commitment it comes off as an after thought without the ability to challenge some of these beliefs. In fact there is no attempt at all to being in any Samoan culture which again looking back seems like a missed opportunity. The remainder of the cast, which went through many changes, is made up of a variety of well-known character actors that all perform well, after almost two hundred episodes these actors all grew into their roles and it must have been comforting to play them. There is no doubt that Sydney has a wide variety of cultures that inhabit the city, there are Asian, Middle Eastern, European and a host more so not to have them widely represented seems like short sightedness on the producers part, there really was a trick missed which does make the show come off as a whites only situation which is not fair on the city itself.

As this is a show that started airing over twenty years ago there is a very different method to the operation of each season but it is still very recognizable to some of the procedurals operating today. While each season was not ‘themed there were storylines that appeared on and off again that normally came to some kind of resolution either during the season or at its conclusion, that in some cases saw main characters leaving the show which for this kind of narrative was unique. It also gave the opportunity to introduce new characters, keeping the show as fresh as possible as it headed into the new millennium. In the background there were always stories of police corruption which fitted with the real life police, as at the time there had been a clean up of the police force which is reflected here, particularly with the old school character of Holloway who was under suspicion for his run on the show, for me this aspect was a nice reflection of real life, as well as being a little scary to known that corruption was that rife.

My only concern about viewing a show that is now (relatively) quite old, as well as being set in a pre-9/11 world was would it still be entertaining, not only that, but would it hold my interest and be relevant to the world that we live in today? I can honestly say that I enjoyed this show immensely, there was something pure in the fact that almost all the technology used then is still in most cases being used now, there were mobile phones, the internet was being widely used and the issues we face today were being addressed then as well. The only real gap that is noticeable is the lack of any real social media, which would not alter any story in a major way if it were told today, but would only serve to enhance the investigative nature of the detectives.

In fact this show was a refreshing break as every single story and character is hands on in a real and identifiable world where there is a definite tactile nature to each story being told, many of the people that are victims or criminals seem to be cut from an all together real cloth with some great Australian character actors portraying them. In fact one of the narrative aspects of the show that became apparent as well as novel was the way in which danger is treated, as is the real consequences of bad decisions made on the water, as well as gun violence and crime which is pervasive here. There are many deaths within the show, with most happening in the water in and around the harbor which reflects the dangers that exist in waterways with the police unable to save everyone, I found this to be very effecting especially mixed with the real locations used giving the stories some sobering reality not seen in many other police based shows, it seems like something real that we as viewers can identify with, unlike physical or gun violence which for most people is removed or only seen on television.

I have to say that I would recommend this television show to people that enjoy something a little different as well as a series that has some local flavor as well as some original characters coupled with characters that many will recognize as tropes of the police procedural but it has enough drama as well as humor to keep any viewer happy as well as being very difficult to stop watching, I look forward to the second set, I hope I don’t have to wait too soon.

Season One

Season one ran for 26 episodes and major storylines included:

– Jonathon Goldstein trying to deny Rachel access to their young son, David.

– Frank’s relationship with crime scene officer, Caroline Cox.

– Helen’s sexuality comes out in the open, particularly to Rachel, who seemed to be the only character who did not know Helen was gay.

– The death and subsequent investigation of Frank’s brother, Kevin.

– Rachel’s relationship with Knocker, which turned out to be a deadly one.

– Clarke’s affair and his subsequent resignation.

– Frank being investigated by Internal Affairs on two occasions.

Season Two

The second season of Water Rats ran, again, for 26 episodes. Season two also took the detectives to Melbourne, a change from Sydney harbour. It also introduced a new character, Constable Tayler Johnson, as well as a few minor ones, including:

Colin “Chopper” Lewis (played by Anthony Martin)

Senior Constable Sam Bailey (played by Kelly Dale)

Michael Jefferies (played by John Adam)

Gail Hawker (played by Anne Tenney)

Major storylines included:

– Rachel’s relationship with the well-off Michael Jefferies.

– Jeff becomes Chief Inspector.

– Frank once again, is investigated by I.A, but this time for a much more serious offence, murder.

– Tayler is Helen’s niece.

– Terry is stabbed and decides to leave the Water Police.

– Dave is speared by spear gun and cannot continue diving.

– Jeff and his wife separate.

Season Three

Season three ran for 31 episodes. New characters included:

Constable Emma Woods

Liz Robinson (played by Rebecca Hobbs)

Detective Senior Constable Jack Christey

Detective Sergeant Louise Bradshaw (played by Sonia Todd)

Terry Madigan (played by Ritchie Singer)

Major storylines included:

– Frank getting back together (for a while) with his ex-wife Liz.

– Rachel and tough-talking detective Jack Christey have a one-night stand.

– Tayler is shot.

– Rachel works with Tommy on a number of occasions, while Frank is away.

– Frank’s relationship with undercover cop Louise ends tragically when she is shot dead.

– Helen is promoted to Senior Sergeant.

Season Four

The fourth series ran for 32 episodes. It was a series of change for Water Rats, which included both Colin Friels’ and Catherine McClements’ departures within 18 episodes of each other. It introduced some new and old characters such as:

Detective Senior Constable Michael Reilly

Detective Sergeant Jack Christey

Gillian Swain (played by Liz Burch)

Suzi Abromavich (played by Roxane Wilson, who also appeared in one episode in series three)

Detective Senior Constable Alex St Clare

Major storylines included:

– Helen’s relationship with lawyer Gillian Swain.

– Michael Reilly, from VIP security, becomes the third detective.

– Frank leaves the Water Police, sailing to Venezuela.

– Jack replaces Frank and his relationship with Rachel gets off to a rocky start.

– Jack is promoted to Detective Sergeant.

– David is kidnapped.

– Rachel and Jack start their relationship again.

– Rachel is stabbed, and dies in Jack’s arms.

– Jeff and his wife get a divorce.

– Tayler leaves the Water Police, joining Pol-Air.

– Alex St Clare replaces Rachel.


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