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DVD Review: Rain Shadow – Series 1

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Filmed entirely on location in a naturally occurring rain shadow in the Adelaide Hills, the Australian television drama Rain Shadow is centered around the relationship between two female veterinarians, laid over a harsh socioeconomic situation existing in a struggling farming community. A "rain shadow" is a region on the lee side of a mountain range, where precipitation is markedly decreased compared to the windward side.

Episode 1, “The Long Paddock,” introduces us to Jill (Victoria Thaine), a fresh-faced young veterinarian who is assigned to assist the current vet, Kate McDonald (Rachel Ward), in drought-stricken Paringa. Kate is gruff and brusque to her new assistant: she has fired or chased off the last nine assistant veterinarians the agency has sent her; she describes her home of Paringa as “walking road kill,” what with the ten-year drought having sucked all the juice out of all the residents. Dour Kate is not entirely without heart, however, but makes quick, pragmatic choices when Jill discovers a sick itinerant drover, taking his equally sick sheep down the “long paddock” (the stock roads).

In Episode 2, “You Can’t Eat Scenery,” a drought-relief workshop has come to Paringa. Tensions run high as the farmers try to figure out what might save their dying farms. One farmer in particular, Fred Kline, is at the end of his tether with his sheep showing signs of a contagion. The wealthiest landowner, Balfour, asks Kate if Jill will be a “problem” but Kate assures him she can manage her new assistant; unbeknownst to Kate, Jill has sent some samples from Fred’s sheep off to the lab.

Another new face comes to town in “Paringa Rules” (episode 3): Akmed Aziz, an Iraqi scientist sent to learn about Australia’s dry land farming and animal husbandry techniques. Aziz’s arrival causes more consternation among Kate and the more successful farmers. Kate tasks Jill with taking their guest around only to certain farms with healthy sheep. When Jill receives her lab results from Fred’s sheep, Kate is furious: if the lab blows the whistle, the district is doomed.

“Black and White” (episode 4) starts with Kate getting injured as she treats some cattle, so Jill must take all the house calls while Kate orders her around by phone from the house. Kate takes advantage of Jill’s absence by telling Balfour that Jill received the lab results; when Balfour insists that Kate send the new sheila out to see him, Kate wryly warns him that Jill will not be intimidated by him regardless of how hard he tries. Jill and Kate butt heads yet again, but begin to work together to fix things in the district that Kate so loves and Jill is learning to understand.

In Episode 5, “The Call of the Wild,” Aziz’s departure is imminent and everyone is worried about what he will report about the district’s sick sheep. When Kate invites the Iraqi scientist to lunch to set up a strategy for containing the truth, Jill’s dad and brother (who want Jill to move back to the city to work at the family business) arrive for an unexpected visit, as does the itinerant sheep drover (who wants Jill to go walkabout with him) from the first episode. The afternoon proceeds awkwardly until a feral dog pack decimates a local goat herd and the entire lunch crowd must work together to save the wounded animals.

The final episode, “The Soldier’s Choice,” finds Jill calling in some favors and breaking some rules as she tries to both treat Paringa’s sheep from the rampant disease and save Kate’s practice from a greedy blackmailer.

I’ve never thought very much of Rachel Ward as an actress, but she does well here, letting occasional glimpses of humanity shine through the cracks in her tough exterior. She also looks fantastic and rocks that Aussie shepherd’s hat. Australian Victoria Thaine gets better and better as the episodes go on, steely resolve peeking out from innocent eyes. The music is gorgeous, reminiscent of the themes from Deadwood; the blues/roots band are the Audreys from South Australia. The real star of Rain Shadow, however, is the landscape: sere, sunburned hills in every shade of red, yellow and brown, sprinkled with dry washes and thirsty trees, rolling up to pale dry skies – and in the distance, out of the rain shadow, green mountains sucking the rain from the clouds.

The DVD extras are slim: a Rachel Ward biography/filmography; a snippet about the Audreys; and a “behind the scenes featurette” that is largely scenes from various episodes and short interviews with cast and crew.

I had never heard of this series and greedily devoured the all-too-few episodes. Luckily, Rain Shadow has been picked up by Australian television for a second season so there is more drama in Paringa yet to come – maybe it will even rain. In the meantime, I highly recommend that U.S. viewers pick up the Series 1 DVDs when they are released here in the States on October 21, 2008.

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