A brief glimmer of hope came when watching Randling last night – before we realised wait, we’re watching Randling – with an increasingly rare appearance of one Anthony Morgan. Hurrah! It’s always far too long between television gigs for this particular funnyman (he moved to Tasmania around a decade ago), which prompted us to wonder exactly why he’d come out of semi-retirement to appear on what could charitably be described as “a word-based game show”. And then we figured it out: Morgan had been a regular on Denton’s “ill-fated” talk show on Channel Seven back in the 90s. Morgan was doing a mate a favour.
This revelation went a long way towards explaining a somewhat creepy vibe hanging over the Randling set. Sure, it was kind of obvious that Denton would be calling in a few favours to put together such a heavyweight – in Australian mid-range television performer terms – cast. There are newcomers and up-and-comers and Wendy Harmer and Dave O’Neil and Rob Carlton and lot of the contestants probably could be pretty funny in a show with a format that allowed them to be funny. Presumably a lot of them jumped at the chance to be on TV with Denton; it’s just as likely that Denton asked a few to come on board and help him out.
So what? This is the way television works. Only thing is, this isn’t a long-time comedy veteran calling up a few mates to see if they want to appear on his new show. This is one of the more powerful producers in the land giving them a call to ask if they want the chance to help him out and get in his good books. More importantly for those of us at home, this isn’t happening behind the scenes: the guy they want to help out – the guy who, if he likes them, could slot them in as the next host of a Gruen Transfer-style hit and literally make them a star – is the host of the show. A show that isn’t just some cosy chat show, but a game show where he asks the questions, he makes the jokes, and he hands out the points – points that seems to actually mean something, if all the talk of ladders and finals are any guide.
This bizarre focus on scoring, by the way, is why all the increasingly desperate talk about how this kind of show requires time to bed down, settle in, get snuggly, rug up and drop a couple farts before somehow magically coming together as a hilarious half hour around week four is complete tripe. Oh, it’s often true this kind of show needs time to bed down. But that process involves making changes, which Randling can’t do. Why? Because unlike every other comedy game show since the dawn of time, Randling has made a big deal of the scoring. There are going to be QUARTER-FINALS: the scoring is not to be messed with.
[“but hang on, isn’t Denton the final judge as far as hanging out points? And wasn’t Denton’s actual no-fooling wife, Jennifer Byrne, on just last night? Doesn’t that make the entire idea of having a fair and unbiased scoring system a sick pathetic joke?” Well spotted, mysterious voice from the ether]
So they can’t change the show in any substantive way, because if they did then what happens to the scores of the first few teams? “Sorry guys, all the games now involve physical challenges… yeah, we know those guys didn’t have to do it, but, uh, SLIME ATTACK!!” You can’t have a scoring system that runs across twenty-odd weeks and change the nature of the show halfway through… well, you can, but then you have to throw the whole “scoring” thing in the bin – which is going to make those quarter finals pretty awkward. And if by week seven Randling is suddenly getting contestants to play “physical Scrabble” involving carving letters out of potatoes and frying them into a tasty meal that also spells out the name of Winston Churchill’s favourite brand of cigars… well, at least something on the show will be a joke.
Anyway, what this means is that Randling is a show where the host in a very real sense has the future job prospects of everyone else on-camera in the palm of his hand. Which, and forgive us if we’re off target here a little, doesn’t exactly sound like a formula for relaxed fun. Who knew the definition of Randling would turn out to be “on-air job interview”?
The upshot of all this is, Randling is a show where the guests want to please the host rather than the audience. And why wouldn’t they? The ABC certainly does. Unless you think anyone else but Denton could have gotten a “word-based game show” up in a prime-time slot on the ABC for 27 weeks. Unless you think anyone but Denton would have been given free reign to make a show so amazingly drawn-out and dull that it makes even Letters & Numbers look like an explosion in the excitement factory. Unless you think anyone but Denton would think a show where the contestants seem constantly on edge and afraid to do anything that might put them offside with the smug, self-satisfied, last-laugh-getting host would be anything but a grim, dispiriting ordeal deserving of nothing more than a quick and unmourned demise.