It’s hard to believe that Andrew Dugdale was ever put in charge of anything, let alone this country, but that’s the premise of The Ex-PM, the new ABC sitcom written by and starring Shaun Micallef. Once upon a time Andrew Dugdale (Micallef) had a popularity rating of 76%, which saw him win four elections and become Australia’s third-longest serving Prime Minister. Now he’s been voted out and has had to move back in to his suburban home and deal with more mundane matters, like repairing the house after it was let to Wolfmother, and dealing with his daughter Carol (Kate Jenkinson) who’s still a bit raw after breaking up with her husband. Oh, and he’s got an autobiography to write.
Dugdale’s business manager Henry (John Clarke), only ever present by video conference as he’s under house arrest following an ASIC investigation, has negotiated a large advance, but the book isn’t written. Enter 24 year old politics graduate Ellen (Lucy Honigan), who has a month to cobble something together about this rather uncooperative subject.
Vague, easily-distracted and clearly not wanting his story told, Dugdale leads Ellen on a weird and wild goose-chase ‘round his property and life, revealing little beyond that he’s given to wearing Australia tracksuit tops, collects antique clocks, thinks of himself as “fiscally conservative”, and once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone looking over his sunglasses ala Paul Keating.
Dugdale is every political leader and none, down to the last clichéd statement. But more generally, he’s a relatively straight character stuck on the middle of a Ray Cooney farce of a life, where there’s an idiot minor character around every corner, and his wife’s trying to shag his closest confidante in the billiard room. It’s partly this that makes it hard to buy Micallef as a former Prime Minister – he’s genuinely, physically funny with brilliant timing throughout – something almost no politicians are.
But on the other hand, there’s awful lot to enjoy in the broad peripheral characters – Francis Greenslade as Curtis, an ex-Comcar driver with a metal plate in his head, Jackson Tozer as Miles, an overzealous idiot Federal Policeman who’s waiting in vain for a gig in Counter Terrorism, and Ming-Zhu Hii as housekeeper Rita, in the country on a 457 visa and once Gaddafi’s cook – and there’ll probably be some good laughs to be had when all is revealed about Dugdale’s night with Condoleezza Rice, so yeah, we could just kick back and enjoy it.
This first episode is a little bumpy (much like Micallef’s last stab at a sitcom, Welcher & Welcher, which is one of the funniest shows made in this country once you get used to its rhythms). At times Dugdale just doesn’t seem to fit the wacky world he’s dropped in, while Ellen seems a little too abrasive for someone who’s agreed to such a stressful gig… but that kind of quibble is self-defeating when a comedy has this much potential.
And actually, we’re pretty excited about what we’ve read about the upcoming episodes of this series on ABC website. Does it matter that it’s hard to buy Shaun Micallef an ex-politician? Probably not. Let’s face it, would anyone looking at John Howard imagine he got beyond a junior position in a very boring law firm?