Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Utopian principles

If there’s a utopia for Australian comedy, it’s not Utopia series 3. The third series of a sitcom should build on past successes – and Utopia’s previous series were largely successful – but also give us, the audience, something new. Based on last night’s episode of Utopia, there’s nothing new for us to see here. It’s the same as it ever was.

Is not giving the audience anything new making a wider point, here? Because things never really change in government, then neither should the fundamentals of Utopia as a television series?

No. Utopia is meant to be entertainment, and audiences stop watching sitcoms if the jokes and situations are pretty much the same every week.

In last night’s episode, we saw how a project came to a halt because our friends at the NBA had to satisfy the needs of every Tom, Diane and Hassan before they could start work. Meanwhile, the team got so wrapped up in a team building scheme – an NBA’s Got Talent competition – that things got a bit out of control and the fire brigade had to be called.

The talent competition was funny, shonky cabaret acts are always funny, but we’ve seen this kind of thing on Utopia before. Speaking truth to power and gently mocking the follies of us humans? That’s every previous episode of Utopia ever.

We like Working Dog; 30+ years into their careers they’re still funny and still making good shows. And writing about what government does with our money is a good thing, but the aim of Utopia is (or should be) to make a comedy that people will watch every week, not to catalogue every possible way that governments could waste our taxes.

Utopia is a good show, but it seems there’s only so much you can say about nation building. And for this third series to work, some changes needed to be made to the show to allow new types of stories to be told and new types of laughs to be generated. But they weren’t. So, this feels like the end of the line for Utopia, which isn’t good just one episode into a new series.

State of (dis)Grace

Why is the ABC so obsessed with advice programs? There’s a reason why the commercial networks don’t make them and it’s not “duhh we forgot”: most Australians consider themselves perfectly capable of living their own lives thank you very much, and when they do need advice they turn to people who have a passing resemblance to either themselves or an expert – neither of whom tends to get a gig hosting these shows on the ABC.

And yet every year the national broadcaster serves up at least one series designed to explain the basic facts of life to an audience that just wants to be entertained. Request denied: the only possibly entertaining angle when guy-with-a-girlfriend Luke McGregor was playing sexless geek Luke McGregor in last year’s Luke Warm Sex was to laugh at his naivety and that would have been to cruel even for the ABC; as for what was supposed to be entertaining in 2015’s utterly shithouse How Not to Behave, let us know when you figure it out.

Which brings us to Growing Up Gracefully, the ABC’s latest attempt to point out that Australians are Doing Life Wrong. Despite the presence of the occasional snappy one-liner or wacky prank (“hey members of the public, blow this whistle when my skirt – which I am lifting via these pulleys – becomes too short!”), this is, once again, not really a comedy program, and so really not our problem. Jeez ABC, can you stop promoting these advice shows as comedies so we can stop watching them and go back to old episodes of Sit Down, Shut Up?

But because we did bother to watch the first episode, we might as well pass judgment because that’s the kind of jerks we are. Good news: as advice shows go, this is closer to The Checkout than Luke Warm Sex, which is no surprise because The Chaser’s Julian Morrow is one of the producers. Of course he is: with Andrew Denton gone, someone has to guide the up-and-comers down the path towards the bland yet polished mediocrity the ABC so highly prizes.

Enough snark for now: The basic premise is decent – two sisters, one exploring old-time advice for women, the other checking out the modern day variety (news flash: they’re not that different!) and as hosts, Hannah & Eliza Reilly (daughters of Hey, Dad..!‘s Garry Reilly and both seasoned media performers) are likable enough without getting in the way of what they’re trying to say. There’s half the battle won right there. Also, hosted by women! That’s a nice change from Luke McGregor and Tom Gleeson.

That said, there’s a fine line between “we’re not taking this too seriously” and “we’re just taking the piss”, and this is often on the wrong side of things. What kind of clothes would you wear to hide your personal issues (like the fact you’re a murderer) is not a hilarious comedy sketch the way it plays out here, and the predictable slide into the traditional ABC awkwardness arrives right on time with the “sexy dress” reveal. Things get a bit more weighty later on with guides to both old-fashioned etiquette and taking bikini selfies, but…

Look, the trick with these shows is to be actually informative while coating the information in just enough comedy (though never enough for us, which is why we generally avoid these shows) to keep things entertaining. In its first episode, Growing Up Gracefully struggles to get the balance right: too often it’s neither informative enough to be useful or funny enough to stand as comedy.

Hopefully they’ll figure this out in later episodes, because what we’ve seen so far has potential. Though that’s mostly potential to be one of those shows where it feels like everything else has been washed out to make sure our focus remains on the hosts. Because that’s what’s important, isn’t it? Each media appearance a stepping stone to the next as part of a nebulous yet driven quest for fame for its own sake. Growing Up Gracefully is never going to be a successful brand – but it just might help launch Hannah & Eliza as brands on their own.

(this is probably why The Checkout has worked where almost every other attempt has failed: because it’s produced by The Chaser – who clearly want to shift their attentions more to the production side of things – using various hired guns as presenters, the show has focused on what viewers care about rather than what the on-air hosts want. Viewers want to be educated and entertained; hosts want to be loved)

Of course, we’ve avoided all mention of whatever we actually need a show about how to find your way through life as a woman in the 21st century because a): it mostly seems to involve making references to “the patriarchy” and b): what is the point of any of these shows anyway?

Semi-practical life advice can be useful and entertaining: The Checkout and two-thirds of A Current Affair each night proves that can work. And shows featuring an entertaining comedian or host exploring a specific, focused topic can also work: countless overseas documentaries and the local work of John Safran and Judith Lucy are all the evidence you need.

But over and over again the ABC picks topics that are simply too diffuse – manners! sex! more manners! – and then brings in hosts who may be likable enough but lack the well-defined point-of-view required to shape the material. The result ends up feeling unpleasantly close to a kind of advertorial for the hosts as media personalities, where they wander around smiling and (dis-)approving mildly of everything they encounter, treating everything as merely a colourful backdrop for their own presence.

Hey, remember Lawrence Leung? Remember how The Chaser fixed him up with that series where he tried to figure out life and stuff by going around asking experts to help him with stuff? Then he made Maximum Choppage and now turns up semi-regularly on Offspring? Come on guys, who can blame hosts for wanting to go down the same path when you can score that kind of result?

 

The Line Gets Blurry

Press release time!

Sideliners spin a different take on sport

ABC’s new sports entertainment show Sideliners premieres on Friday, 21 July at 6pm on ABC and ABC iview

Tuesday, July 18, 2017 — Olympic champion and media all-rounder Nicole Livingstone and comedian Tegan Higginbotham have joined forces on this new one-hour live sport entertainment panel show. Broadcasting from ABC’s Southbank studios in Melbourne, the show will be filmed live in front of a studio audience.

Nicole and Tegan will be joined by a regular team of athletes and comedians including comedian Dave Thornton, Paralympic champion Dylan Alcott and former ABC ME star Amberley Lobo to look at the world of sport from all angles.

Each show will feature guest interviews, field stories, comedy sketches and panel discussion. The show will be focused on bringing viewers a fresh approach to the genre – reporting it through the eyes of sports fans with a fresh, fun and sometimes irreverent feel.

It’s the perfect show to enjoy with family or friends ahead of a weekend of sport. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you are guaranteed to be entertained.

Sounds great! It also sounds a lot like the previously announced then quickly buried after a string of blunders Fever Pitch. As in, it’s basically the same press release for what is basically the same show:

Nicole Livingstone and Tegan Higginbotham to host new live comedy sport show on ABC

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 — Olympic champion and media all-rounder Nicole Livingstone and comedian Tegan Higginbotham have joined forces on Fever Pitch, a new one-hour live comedy sport panel show which will premiere on Friday, June 30 at 6pm (AEST) on ABC and ABC iview.

Filmed in front of a live studio audience in Melbourne, Nicole and Tegan will be joined by a regular team of athletes and comedians including former ABC ME star Amberley Lobo, comedian Dave Thornton and Paralympic champion Dylan Alcott to look at the world of sport from all angles.

Each show will feature guest interviews, field stories, comedy sketches and studio games.

Fever Pitch will air live on Friday nights at 6pm (AEST) on ABC and iview from Friday, June 30th.

To be fair, there are some differences – one is a “new one-hour live sport entertainment panel show” that features “guest interviews, field stories, comedy sketches and panel discussion”, while the other was a “new one-hour live comedy sport panel show” that featured “guest interviews, field stories, comedy sketches and studio games”, but otherwise… yeah.

Guess there’s no new ideas in television, hey?

How to Solve a Problem like Chris Lilley

So there’s been a bit of attention over the last few weeks drawn to the fact that Jonah from Tonga is, as the French say, racist as fuck. First this:

New Zealand’s Maori Television has dropped Jonah from Tonga from broadcasting

Which led to this:

The narrative never really shifts in Australia: to admit that Lilley is guilty of a deeply racist act of cultural violence would be to admit that the nation itself is a constantly unraveling act of actual violence.

That admission will never come. White Australia may confess Lilley is “offensive”, but hey, he’s also pretty funny, right?

Which gathered more mainstream support here:

Yet for all of the one-liners and audience acclaim, Jonah and Ja’mie also represent Lilley’s satire at its worst. The problem for Lilley is that his methods – brownface and cross-dressing – obscure his message. No matter how worthy the satire, Jonah’s brownface is never neutral. No matter how funny Ja’mie can be, it is still a white bloke acting out problems he’s never had. Is it really necessary to dress in brownface to make the point that “the Island boys”, to quote one of Jonah’s teachers, have a hard time at school?

While our learned opinion falls somewhere in between these articles – we’re not exactly convinced that the entirety of post-war American comedy was based on minstrelsy (Bob Newhart?) and that Guardian piece wastes way too much time trying to pretend Lilley is “capable of brilliant satire” – this realisation that Lilley is a bit shit is basically good news. There’s only one problem: it doesn’t go far enough.

If you’re going to give Chris Lilley a well-deserved kicking for his blackface cliches, what about his even more crude yellowface work? Remember Ricky Wong from We Can Be Heroes – a Chinese physics student who embodies pretty much every Asian cliche there is (passive, hard-working, great at science) only there’s a twist: he wants to turn his back on his heritage – oh wait, his parents are cliches too as they demand he be an over-achiever – and put on a stage musical. In which he’ll appear in blackface.

Yes, this is as dodgy as it sounds. The thing is, there’s also a number of actual indigenous people involved (like Lionel Rose and Cathy Freeman) and the end point of his storyline is that while he should follow his dream, this particular dream is – going by the reactions of the indigenous people watching it – not a great idea. It’s a show that says “hey Chinese guy – blackface is a bad idea, don’t do it”

And then in Summer Heights High white guy Chris Lilley does it to rapturous applause. O-kay.

But if you thought Ricky Wong was a collection of offensive stereotypes, then the less said about Angry BoysJen Okazaki the better. Remember when she was marketing her (hetrosexual) teen son as gay with a gay dog called Gay Dog? What exactly were we meant to be laughing at there?

While we’re at it, it’s not like Lilley’s portrayal of women in general was anything to be proud of. Gran was a massive racist, Jen was a nightmare, Pat Mullins was a drip who rolled around on the ground for laughs and Ja’mie was a license to insult teenagers sustained over three separate series. As we said at the time, Chris Lilley’s acting style consists of creating a comedy character, putting on a comedy accent, dressing up in a comedy costume and then not being funny at all. But instead of making him “not funny”, this somehow makes him a brilliant mimic and subtle, insightful performer.

Bullshit.

Chris Lilley only ever created nasty, unpleasant characters, and Australia loved him for it – Summer Heights High was based around a bitchy parody of a teenage girl, a music teacher who placed shit on the floor of a classroom and blamed a Down Syndrome student for it, and a high school bully who got laughs for tormenting “rangas”. If you found this stuff funny, maybe you might want to consider what exactly it was you were laughing at.

His defenders claim his comedy is sharp edged satire. But what was he satirising? When did he take a swing at anyone with real power in our society? A more accurate description of his comedy would be schoolyard mockery –  remember how Gran insulted the teens she watched over? Remember how Ja’mie insulted “povvo bogans”? Remember how s.mouse insulted the intelligence of everyone watching?  – that he “redeemed” at the last minute by having his hateful characters break down in tears as they suddenly realised that being a total shit was not a great way to behave.

If only their creator could realise it too.

 

Others Gonna Work It Out

Press release time!

JULY 13, 2017 – Australia’s leading local streaming service Stan announced today that its latest Stan Original series, The Other Guy, will premiere exclusively on August 17.

Created by and starring leading Australian comedy talent, Matt Okine, THE OTHER GUY is a funny, raw and poignant look at break-ups in the modern age and at the harsh reality of recovering from heartbreak.

THE OTHER GUY co-stars Valene Kane (The Fall, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Harriet Dyer (No Activity, Love Child), Marg Downey (Fast Forward, Kath & Kim), Christiaan van Vuuren (Soul Mates, Bondi Hipsters), Adam Briggs (Cleverman, Black Comedy) along with composer, performer and rising star Amali Golden (Australian Idol).

The 6 x half hour comedy drama series follows a successful radio host, AJ Amon, who finds himself unexpectedly back in the dating pool for the first time in a decade, after discovering his long-term girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Filmed on location across Sydney earlier this year, THE OTHER GUY is written by Okine and Becky Lucas (Please Like Me) and script produced by Greg Waters (Soul Mates, Dance Academy). Directed by Kacie Anning (Fragments of Friday), the series is produced by Aquarius Films (six-time Academy Award nominated film Lion and Berlin Syndrome) and global studio Entertainment One/eOne (Designated Survivor, Sharp Objects) who will also distribute the series internationally. THE OTHER GUY has received production investment funding from Screen Australia in association with Create NSW.

 The Other Guy will premiere exclusively on Stan on August 17

Well, at least they’re investing in local comedy.

… yes, okay, we mean local dramedy – advertising yourself as “a funny, raw and poignant look at break-ups in the modern age and at the harsh reality of recovering from heartbreak” suggests a show that leans more towards sad montages rather than, you know, bust-a-gut laffs.

Also: co-written by someone from Please Like Me.

We go on about this way more than is healthy, but when it comes to Australian television it’s a sad fact: adding literally any other word to “comedy” when describing a show means it contains zero comedy. Comedy is that rare thing that people want to see, which is why, when someone makes a show that they’re not quite sure has an audience – hey, remember The Warriors? – they go out of their way to add “comedy” to the description.

So this? This sounds like a mild drama about a guy trying to find love with the occasional funny moment thrown in – a more dating obsessed The Wrong Girl, perhaps. It’ll probably be a well-made show because they all are, but a comedy?

Well, Okine is a funny guy, so obviously a story based on the time he got cheated on for real will be hilarious, right?

Vale Ronny Chieng International Student

Ronny Chieng International Student has been that rare thing in Australian sitcom: a show you want to see more of. If it was released on Netflix, you’d sit down to watch one and then realise two hours later that you’d just watched four of them.

Why does it work so well? Partly it’s the familiarity of the situation; even if you haven’t been to uni you’ve probably formed similar relationships with people at school or work who you might not normally befriend. And everyone knows a super uptight anal retentive and a way-too-relaxed idiot. To use a cliché, it’s funny because it’s true.

Not that we’re saying this show is cliched. No way. Can you name another sitcom in this country that’s managed to take comedy tropes like the super uptight anal retentive and the way-too-relaxed idiot and render them quite as well as in this show? There’s so much sharply observed detail in these characters’ lines…is this really an Australian sitcom?

We’re going to give Declan Fay a lot of the credit for this. Anyone who’s heard The Sweetest Plum knows how good he is at analysing everyday idiocy and distilling it into ridiculous and hilarious characters. Add to that Chieng’s stylings and tried-and-tested material from his stand-up, and you have a top-notch comedy ranter of a central character surrounded by mostly lovable but also very funny fools.

If you watch no other episode of this series, make it episode 5, where Ronny reluctantly ends up in the cast of the Law Revue. Student comedy is easy to take this piss out of, but there’s a very particular type of theatrical wankery and poorly-written earnest satire that’s parodied in this episode. (Satire that is, let’s face it, only a few steps below some of the satire that makes it to TV in this country. Terrifying.)

Next week Chieng and friends are being replaced by the new series of Utopia, but we have a feeling that International Student will be back. The ABC doesn’t always commission good comedies, but when they do they usually bring them back.

Now Junior, Behave Yourself

A comedy game show pitched as “A show where we attempt to find out why we do the weird things that we do” is doomed to fail. Digging down into people’s weird behaviour is a great way to find comedy. A game show is, nine times out of ten, not.

And so it proves to be with Behave Yourself, Seven’s latest attempt to remind people that they used to be the home of Australian comedy back before they aired shows like The White Room and Double Take. The concept is simple: three teams of two people each – usually a comedian and a celebrity, though Shane Warne and Kate Langbroek are also teamed up – play the kind of generic “comedy” game show games we all hoped we’d seen the last of around the turn of the century.

The show isn’t all “Here, put on this helmet for the chance to maybe smell a bottled fart!” though. There’s also “guess which one of our contestants has a thing for feet!” It’s the kind of comedy gold that leaves a green ring on your finger. And when it does get down to more traditional and possibly entertaining questions there’s usually just enough stilted banter to kill the humour stone dead.

A big problem is that there’s zero chemistry between contestants – some awkward quasi-flirting in the opening minutes sets the tone there – and while the idea of having “teams” on comedy game shows is loved by producers because it means they can get celebrities on to bring in viewers then pair them with comedians to keep the viewers laughing, in practice it means two strangers stuck together failing to be funny or charming. Remember Randling? God, we hope not.

The pacing is also way, way off. Have You Been Paying Attention? has taught us that the two things a comedy game show needs in Australia – because we lack the kind of raconteurs who can tell the funny stories that often keep UK comedy game shows afloat – is speed. Power through those jokes, people! Behave Yourself, on the other hand, lingers at the crime time and time again.

Big comedy set pieces (again, fart helmet) are comedy death the second they stop being funny, because there’s no quick way to get out of them if they don’t work. And these don’t work, in large part because there’s no chemistry between the guests and so no sense that we’re watching friends muck about. If you’re going to call your show Behave Yourself you need some actual wacky behaviour in there somewhere, but by putting celebrities with images to protect on you guarantee nothing of the sort.

Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation (the other local gold standard for this kind of show) took its time building up to big wacky stunts, and then made sure that each of the team captains was distinct enough as a comedy character for there to be laughs simply from seeing them deal with what they were up against. Aside from him telling us he’s on alllll the dating apps, what’s Shane Warne’s comedy character? For that matter, what’s Kate Langbroek’s?

Of course, almost all comedy game shows get off to a bumpy start, but these days good luck finding a network willing to ride it out. And the damn thing has to look like there’s potential there in the first place: HYBPA? may have started out rough but Working Dog had a solid track record of panel comedy so sticking with it seemed like a reasonable move.

(that said, this bog-standard article from News Corp going on about how viewers viciously turned on Behave Yourself on social media is a wank. Viewers viciously turn on everything on social media)

Behave Yourself? With a cast of generic chancers, a host who’s a smiling Chesty Bond manikin dipped in bum fluff, and a set-up that requires ten words to explain – which for a comedy is five too many (“what happened in the news” and “which generation is best” are good: “A show where we attempt to find out why we do the weird things that we do” is bad) – this show arrived with a tag on its toe.

When the Fever Breaks

Remember Fever Pitch? The ABC’s marginally-hyped new “live comedy sports show” that was… well, let’s let the press release explain:

Nicole Livingstone and Tegan Higginbotham to host new live comedy sport show on ABC

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 — Olympic champion and media all-rounder Nicole Livingstone and comedian Tegan Higginbotham have joined forces on Fever Pitch, a new one-hour live comedy sport panel show which will premiere on Friday, June 30 at 6pm (AEST) on ABC and ABC iview.

(you can find the rest of our thrilling coverage here)

One thing we’re sure you don’t remember is watching it last week, because it never went to air. So what happened? Well, a disastrous string of pre-launch bungles almost certainly didn’t help: first a wacky comedy press release was sent out then redacted, then the team were given a dry run during a minor soccer match only to discover that sports fans don’t enjoy comedians making fun of them and their hobby:

“Like many fans, FFA is disappointed with some aspects of the ABC’s broadcast of the Sydney FC v Liverpool FC match last night,” A-League’s official twitter account tweeted.

We’ve since heard – from someone who read it in The Herald-Sun – that Fever Pitch has been dumped. Well, kinda: the ABC now has a new and very similar-sounding show titled The Sidelinders lined up for debut later this month. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it’s going to be the exact same show – it definitely features the exact same hosts:

Look for it July 21st at 6pm.

Laying Down the Law

You may have noticed we’re three weeks into the second season of The Family Law and we still haven’t managed to review it. But more likely you haven’t: while even high profile Australian television struggles to get attention these days, The Family Law, AKA the only Australian comedy SBS will be broadcasting this year, has barely caused a ripple.

And why should it? As the generally heart-warming, proudly representational and only mildly amusing story of a young Benjamin Law and the wacky antics of his now-divorced Queensland family, it’s the kind of show where describing it as “normal people leading normal lives” is a positive. Take this review from (ugh) Mamamia:

The importance of The Family Law being broadcast on Australian screens cannot be understated. 90 per cent of it’s cast is Asian-Australian. The theme of divorce is front and centre. But more than that, it’s interesting, brilliantly scripted and entertaining.

When The Family Law writers sit down to plot their character’s arcs, motivations and words they have one main mandate. They’ll make you laugh, but only after they’ve punched you in the stomach with sadness.

An important show that’ll punch you in the stomach with sadness – sounds hilarious!

We should probably stress here that we’re not saying The Family Law is a bad show. It’s a bland show, which requires a few more letters. But is that necessarily a bad thing? After all, bland has become the default setting for Australian comedy across the board over the last few years – so much so that we’d suggest that if you wanted to make a comedy that could possibly offend someone either pitch it as a segment on The Footy Show or just give up. Maybe just go straight to giving up.

It wasn’t always this way. There’s a reason why this largely comedy-focused website has a category titled “OUTRAGE”: newspapers and radio going nuts over some supposedly offensive show or another used to be par for the course in Australian comedy. It was all bullshit, of course: while Chris Lilley’s blatant racism was repeatedly glossed over and Hey Hey it’s Saturday‘s blackface horror was dismissed as a bit of fun by News Corp newspapers, they went predictably berserk every time an ABC series threatened to tackle a topic more hard-hitting than “old people are excellent”.

The high water mark of all this was The Chaser’s “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch, which was the increasingly rare combination of a show actually doing something in bad taste while being a show that people were actually watching at the time. Then again, the list of people being outraged included Catherine Deveny, who was later sacked by The Age for making a joke about an underage television personality getting laid at the Logies, so swings and roundabouts there.

Was Australian comedy really all that outrageous? Of course not. Wil Anderson insulting Liberal politicians is about as boringly predictable as comedy gets. But did all this coverage – and let’s stress that almost all of this coverage came as part of News Corp’s forever war on the ABC – make it seem like Australian comedy had some edge to it? Well… maybe. And so the people behind the people who run Australian comedy decided that edge had to go.

Of course, these were and are the same people who were fine with putting shit like this to air just a few years ago so excuse us if we don’t assign the purest of motives to their decision.

It’s taken Maori Television’s full board to yank Jonah from Tonga from its schedule.

The spin-off mockumentary show follows white comedian Chris Lilley as he plays 14-year-old Tongan boy Jonah Takalua.

Lilley, an Australian, insists the show was provocative satire rather than racist comedy.

“Provocative satire” you say. Like caging “rangas” in soccer nets and making them eat dog shit? And this was the kind of comedy that wasn’t outrageous in Australia, so imagine the kind of stuff that did stir up trouble… you know, like the time Shaun Micallef made a joke about making a joke about Weary Dunlop.

Anyway, while it’s safe to say that the specifics of outrage are something of a moving target – we’re all certainly very excited about the comedy of 2030 focusing on the appalling way the people of fifteen years ago openly read blogs on the internet – the general nature of outrage has all but vanished from our televisions as far as comedy is concerned. When they come to make another series of Shock Horror Auntie in 2030, they’re going to have nothing to put to air.

Why this has happened is up for debate; while we’d certainly love to go with evil executives at the ABC stamping out all controversy in an attempt to placate News Corp and their political masters, it’s at least as likely that with the audience for free-to-air television dwindling they’re just too worried about losing any more viewers to risk pissing off anyone. If you want to be outraged, the internet has all the material you need and more: television is now where people go to avoid all that kind of thing.

And so we end up here, with perfectly reasonable and yet perfectly forgettable shows like The Family Law. Are we saying it needs to be hard-hitting and offensive? Obviously not: it’s just not that kind of show. But without someone somewhere doing something even mildly edgy on Australian television, a show like The Family Law just fades into the background along with everything (Offspring? Love Child? The Wrong Girl?) else.

A well-crafted lightweight family sitcom like this one should be a refresher course between more challenging series. When everything on the air is pitched at the same “meh” level – was anyone ever surprised by anything on The Weekly? – then you’re left with a rolling tide of programming that just washes over viewers without once ever being memorable.

Which is a long way of saying we haven’t written much about The Family Law because we can’t remember anything we’d want to say.

Let’s get this Democratic Party jumping

Sometimes, a good thing should be left well alone. Sammy J’s Playground Politics was a razor-sharp series of five-minute sketches satirising federal politics via the medium of a Play School parody. It was also really funny. Then it came back a month ago as part of a series of 15-minute shows, Sammy J’s Democratic Party. In our review of episode 1, we pointed out a few faults with the show but were generally impressed. But now, 4 more episodes later, that list of faults is growing and we wish Sammy J would go back to just doing Playground Politics. It really is the best thing in this series.

The first problem with the show is its high concept. Hey look, Sammy J’s in a bunker under Parliament House and he can run amok! Tee hee, he’s got a periscope and can spy on the pollies, and look, he’s just spotted the Liberals sorting out their latest factional dispute by having a fight in some of those inflatable sumo wrestler costumes.

Okay, that idea is kind of funny – and unlike, say, The Chaser’s super long Election Desk concept, the periscope premise can be used for a number of different jokes (not to mention the fact that said premise can be re-worked into a PA system, and be used for even more jokes) – but it’s not quite up there with the quality of the OUTRAGE episode of Playground Politics in Democratic Party episode 2. Go watch it now, it’s great!

Then there are the Robert Menzies interviews, with Sammy J trying to get answers out of a cardboard cut-out of the former Prime Minister who speaks like a uni student who’s overdosed on internet memes. Having not minded this conceit in episode 1, we now absolutely loathe it. It’s not that we’re against stupid gags but there is an art to doing them, and the art is to take quite clever or well-conceived gags and dress them up as stupid. Something these sketches are not doing; they’re just taking stupid gags and doing them stupidly. Or to put it another way: when you’re left wondering whether you were wrong about The Weekly’s Hard Chat sketches because they don’t seem so bad in comparison, there’s some bad comedy going down.

On a positive note, Democratic Party isn’t often one of those sketch shows that wheels out the same, increasingly-tired-looking, characters each week. The not hugely hilarious Constitutional Cops have only been on the show twice, and the bushrangers with modern problems are also used sparingly. The nice thing about this show is that the Menzies interviews aside, it’s generally trying to keep things as fresh and funny as possible.

The parliamentary sports team coach sketch in episode 5 was a spot-on parody of football press conferences. And it’s been impressive how many very topical gags have made it into intricate and clever sketches, such as the Playground Politics ones, which were probably conceived and written many months ago. Many comedians wouldn’t go to that trouble once they’d finalised a script.

Despite the Menzies interviews and a number of other weak sketches, Sammy J’s Democratic Party is still worth watching. But it would be even more worth watching if they’d just stuck to what worked, or had worked harder on some of their other material.