Vale Utopia (the Australian one)

The fact that the final episode of Utopia involved the Nation Building Authority missing out at an awards night was yet another might big clue that whatever Working Dog were seeking to achieve with this sitcom, a bluntly realistic look at the infrastructure management of this once-great nation probably wasn’t it.

(ok, sure; there probably are – well, almost certainly, but don’t expect us to do the research – awards handed out to public service organisations. But they’re hardly the kind of thing you’d mention up front in a “realistic” look at infrastructure management.)

Instead, we got pretty much exactly what we want from Working Dog in sitcom form: someone smart but largely ineffectual becoming increasingly exasperated as the seemingly logical but astoundingly stupid people around them browbeat the very idea of “change” into the ground. It’s not a particularly complex set-up, but it’s a great way to generate jokes: we’ll take it over “a bunch of interchangable people are mildly snarky to each other, then someone dies” any day.

“Why would anyone agree to something so stupid?”

“It was an election, it got away from us, the PM signed a Memorandum of Understanding.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think he understood it.”

Sure, it’s a cheap joke, but it’s a joke. Australian television comedy has never really been writer-driven – even back in the 80s most of the big shows (Mother & Son aside) were writer-performer led – but there once was a time when writing was actually seen as kind of important to making comedy work. Working Dog, being more on the “writing” side of the writer-performer scale (and not just because they write actual books), tend to create writer-driven comedy: situations are chosen because of their comedy potential, characters are designed to be funny – whether on their own or in their interactions with others – and so on.

To the untrained eye – which seems to cover an awful lot of the current crop of Australian television critics – this kind of thing can seem old-fashioned and quaint. The current fad in comedy as far as they’re concerned is for “realism”: characters are vaguely defined (just like real people), they drift in and out of mundane situations (just like real life), and they don’t say jokes – just vaguely amusing things every once in a while (just like real life). Unfortunately, this makes for shit comedy. Just like 99.9% of real life.

Why this isn’t plain for all to see remains a mystery to us. Maybe it’s because with a show like Utopia it’s easy for pretty much anyone to see how good it is – which is pretty good but not quite a classic. There are lots of jokes, some pointed observations, a bunch of broad performances –

– actually, if you were looking for problems with Utopia, the performances might be a good place to start. None of them were actively bad, but very few of them were all that good. We’re going to blame the writing here: having Rob Sitch playing an exasperated straight man (a role he did effortlessly) felt like a waste of his talents, while pretty much everyone else (with the exceptions of Kitty Flanagan’s forceful yet disconnected PR flack and Lehmo’s brash governmental liaison) was playing a character without any real character. They got the jokes out there, but there was never much going on with the personalities behind the jokes; the idea that a situation would become funny simply because we could anticipate how a character would react to it didn’t ever get much of a look in here –

– and that’s pretty much it. Don’t get us wrong, it’s extremely difficult to get even that much right and we’re not downplaying the skill that’s gone into Utopia in the slightest. We’re just saying that it’s a broad comedy that’s clearly trying to be funny: to a large extent it’s a case of you laugh or you don’t, which tends to leave critics with not a whole lot else to say.

Of course, it could just be that Utopia had the misfortune of being a show about the way the government uses infrastructure to divert attention from its problems just at a time when the government was using the threat of terrorism and military action to divert attention from its problems, thus making what should have been a sure-fire topical comedy seem just a little adrift. Fingers crossed that for all our sakes things are back on track for (the inevitable, and much-anticipated by us) second series…

 

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4 Comments

  • Lex says:

    The second season has been confirmed, sadly. I found it to be one of the most annoyingly repetitive shows I’ve ever seen. Every episode was the same, right down to the same formulaic A-Plot / B-plot structure (A Plot = govt and publicity team wants to push unfeasible project through, and Rob Sitch gets exasperated; B Plot = the office has to get accustomed to a new IT system /phone calendar system / alarm system / swipe card / website design / logo design / DVD design, and Rob Sitch gets exasperated.)

    It was good the first time. We just didn’t need another 7 episodes labouring the same, single point week after week. And the acting of Lehmo and the two interchangeably ditzy secretaries was annoyingly broad (interestingly, in the pilot episode – screened here as Ep 7 – the performances of the secretaries were notably more even and restrained, so god knows why Sitch told them to go bigger for the series proper.)

    As you said in your own post, the target of the satire also just felt a little off-Broadway and odd in the context of the Abbott government’s agenda. It’s extremely apparent that the series had its genesis during the Rudd years, when infrastructure actually was a buzzword.

    Coming from the pens of Working Dog, the series still had its reliable moments, but for me it remained a long way short of their masterpiece Frontline.

  • Rutegar says:

    Have to agree with Lex about the cookie-cutter format of UTOPIA.

    Astonishingly obvious for a clued-up bunch like WORKING DOG. I didn’t make it past the halfway mark of the second episode because the template was so screamingly obvious.

    But then, as has been noted in other areas of entertainment such as TV dramedies, big budget movies, and books, YOUNG ADULT is all the rage right now, even among them thar grown ups.

    And this was how UTOPIA felt to me.

    Simple formula, simple dialogue. Zero edge or depth or insight about anything going on the real world right now that might make anyone in the audience feel uncomfortable about their own attitudes and behaviours … basically avoiding what Comedie in the truest sense is meant to do.

    And what WORKING DOG did so brilliantly with FRONTLINE.

    But for whatever reason (okay, I know the reason) Rob Sitch and Co. no longer feel comfortable engaging in with the same venomous diligence.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/wednesday-24th-september-2014/5750302

    Then again, there is also the possibility that WORKING DOG are simply interested in creating a “format” for a show to sell overseas. Such is the way of the world these days.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    With Frontline it always seemed clear that Working Dog had a real loathing for the excesses of “current affairs” television, even as they were fascinated by them. Their political sitcoms always feel a lot more like “well, I guess politics is pretty funny when you think about it”. Sports administration would seem like a more logical choice for them considering both Tom and Santo are sports fans, but presumably The Games still has that covered.

    No argument here that Utopia was pretty (ok, very) basic formula-wise, but there were enough decent lines per episode to make it work. Hopefully, much like The Hollowmen‘s second series, they’ll branch out a lot more next time around now they have a feel for what they’re doing.

  • Chris says:

    There’s not much I can disagree with from the comments above, it’s just none of that seemed to bother me as much. I can’t disagree that Utopia doesn’t come near Frontline, it certainly doesn’t. But I’m not sure that being unable to reach or exceed a career high point should ever be put forward as anything more than an observation…definitely not a criticism. I disagree with the “zero insight” view…Whilst it may have been formulaic week on week, being a Project Manager myself, I was actually astounded at some of the subtle observations that were made. Maybe I’ve just got no clue as to how the writing process comes together, but I couldn’t work out how the writers, none of whom would have spent any significant time in an office let alone working on a project, could have picked up on some of that stuff.