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.”
“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…