We’ve been pretty hard on Fairfax’s television reviewers these last few years, what with their blatant nepotism and incessant championing of complete shit. But of late we’ve been wondering: have we gotten them all wrong?
Back when Marieke Hardy’s Laid was more than just a punchline to a joke about wasting taxpayer funds, Fairfax’s writers repeatedly praised it in tones that… well, “sickening” doesn’t really come close. At the time we figured it was largely due to Hardy being a both a Fairfax employee and friends with at least some of the writers, mostly because the writers often made sure to mention their friendship with Hardy. But what if we were mistaken?
There’s been a fair bit of talk around here about this recent column by Fairfax Green Guide editor Debi Enker praising Josh Thomas and his show Please Like Me:
What’s the matter with you people? Why aren’t you watching one of the best comedies on TV? It’s not as though we’re over-loaded with great home-grown offerings. Yet one turns up, into its second season and still ticking along nicely, and no one’s watching.
Yeah, that’d be because it’s kinda shithouse.
Now, usually we’d take time out to point out that a lot of what Enker – one of Australia’s top television critics, don’t you know – says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense:
This is a low-key but incisive comedy about awkwardness and it’s more interested in how the characters interact than what happens to them.
You can’t really make a comedy “about” awkwardness, any more than you can make a comedy “about” laughter. You make a show about situations or events that cause awkwardness, which – we’d argue – means you’re not actually making a comedy. But even if you are, surely “how the characters interact” IS “what happens to them” – character-based dramas such as love stories and the like are all stories about “how the characters interact”.
As for “incisive”, pretty much the only insight provided to date is “awkwardness is really awkward” – it certainly hasn’t been “awkwardness is funny”. With his endless series of scenes where characters stand around making chit-chat that goes nowhere – yes, Thomas has made a sitcom that’s not as funny as commercial radio – Please Like Me is basically an aimless soap opera where every scene is designed to make someone feel embarrassed. Usually the home viewer.
But then we read today‘s “Couch Life” column by Ruth Ritchie in the Fairfax press, which contained this gem:
Closer to home Josh Thomas’ second series of Please Like Me (ABC2, Tuesday, 9.30pm) is a world away from Louie and yet there are similarities. Josh Thomas, like Louis C.K. has shaped a sit-com around the personae he has allowed us to come to know in variety and panel TV. He plants his gay awkward hipster character in a share house and throws in some dysfunctional family. The result is a very original, moving, hilarious show that is impossible to pigeonhole. As authentic and unusual talent as Josh Thomas is, the chance of one so young and so … un-Rove McManus achieving a show of this quality is slim and a tribute to all involved. He must get sick of the comparison with Lena Dunham and Girls. Both are young and unlikely looking stars. They embrace their outsider status and make it work in their favour. Josh Thomas probably has more heart, his humour springing from a less brittle and facile well than that of self-absorbed young folks in Brooklyn.
The fuck? Why is everyone over at Fairfax suddenly pushing the same “Josh Thomas is Your New God” angle?
(comparing Thomas to various cult comedy figures from the US? Check. Expressing surprise that something this “good” could be coming out of Australia? Check. Use of the word “awkward” like it’s a compliment? Check.)
Normally we would have simply assumed the usual rampant nepotism and been on our way. But as far as we can tell, there’s no direct link between Thomas and Fairfax (if anyone knows different, please let us know). So then why are they doing this? Kinne was a better show (and also on a non-core channel), but Fairfax all but ignored it. They can’t seem to say a nice word about Mad As Hell without making some snide comment about how Micallef is “too smart” for the masses. Hamish & Andy? They don’t even rate a mention.
Our best guess is that these writers honestly and deeply believe that whatever its flaws, Please Like Me is a Fairfax show. It reflects the core values of Fairfax readers: it’s an insipid, bland white guy (who likes guys sexually but isn’t in any way threatening) drifting through a variety of inner-city locales pondering slightly quirky questions in between dealing with his mentally ill mother. It is “ironic” and “edgy” and “not for everyone”. It is a show Fairfax can Get Behind.
We’re not saying some sinister figure in editorial has sent down an edict ordering public displays of support for Thomas: in much the same way that political writers don’t rise in News Corp unless they share the core beliefs of Rupert Murdoch, clearly television writers don’t get regular work at Fairfax unless they value bland, “quirky” upper middle-class Australian comedies over, well, pretty much anything else we make here.
And to some extent, we’re fine with that. Newspapers, like all forms of media, reflect a set of values that (they hope) are attractive to their readers. If you’re somehow able to reconcile your personal poverty with supporting a political party that wants to make you even poorer, you read the Daily Telegraph; if you think replacing every single shop within a fifteen mile radius of the CBD with a cafe or boutique homeware store is a great idea, you read the Sydney Morning Herald. If you don’t agree with either there’s no real point complaining: they’re simply not for you.
The problem is, even if you’re 100% on board with Fairfax’s values Please Like Me is still not very good. Comedy might be subjective, but seriously guys: there’s just not all that much to laugh at here. And so what pisses us off about all this hollow praise is that it’s a sign that Fairfax’s television writers have decided that they’d much rather support a show based on cultural values than on actual quality. Which means we have all this space devoted to talking it up, only it reads more like the writers are trying to praise a show that they don’t really have that much praise for.
For fuck’s sake, Ritchie calls it “very original”, and then two lines later we get “[Thomas] must get sick of the comparison with Lena Dunham and Girls.” Which one is it? And if you’re going to call a show “hilarious”, it helps if you can quote one single solitary joke from that show. If you found it funny, explain why – without simply assuming that awkward = funny (you do realise we have different words for those two things because THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING).
Put another way, why is it in praising Louie Ritchie was able to quote an actual funny line to support her opinion of that show (“What are you afraid is going to happen if you hold hands with a fat girl? Are you afraid your dick is going to fall off?”), yet the best she could do for Please Like Me was to let us know that the “best material in the show belongs to the bipolar mother played with special deftness by Debra Lawrance”?
Could it be that she found one show actually funny while the other was, well, you know… just the type of show that Fairfax supports?