Pretty much from the first moment we heard about Here Come the Habibs, the big question was “is this going to be the sitcom that destroys Australia”? Ha ha no fuck off with that slow news week crap: the real question was “how is this going to be any different from any other comedy show from Jungle?”
Jungle – formerly Jungleboys – are an advertising production company that have quickly (well, quickly by the pace of Australian television) become major players in the world of comedy thanks to shows like The Moodys, No Activity and, uh, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting. Phil Lloyd, the long-time Home & Away writer best known for playing Myles Barlow in Review with Myles Barlow, is a core member of Jungle and is the head writer on Habibs, so it seemed likely that what we were going to get would be something of a known quantity.
And so it has proved to be. The general tone here is along the lines of a less-edgy Moodys: character-heavy family stuff where the jokes are rarely big laughs. The basic set-up doesn’t help much: in case you somehow missed the waves of outrage sweeping the nation, the plot here is that the Habibs, a relatively-non-caricatured-for-a-broad-ethnic-comedy Lebanese family, have won $22 million in the lottery and presumably used that as partial deposit on a Sydney harbourside mansion because that place looks a steal at anything under $30 million. Unfortunately the racist-without-saying-any-of-the-bad-words snooty neighbours want them gone. Culture clash!
Jungle have been around this block before so the general vibe is one of competence. A lot of the time what the characters say isn’t all that funny, but at least this knows the difference between lines that are meant to be funny because someone’s making a joke, and lines that are meant to be funny because of what the character is trying to achieve. You might think “how droll, the husband of the snooty next door neighbour is nervous because he thinks Fou Fou, the head of the Habib family, might be a terrorist”, but there have been a lot of critically acclaimed Australian comedies where all the dialogue has been nothing but people trading supposed witticisms so even a basic level of characterisation is not to be scoffed at.
But who cares if it’s funny – is it racist? It sure is… AGAINST WHITE PEOPLE WHAAAAT? Oh right, racism is an entrenched cultural construction built up over centuries to skew society for the benefit of white people and therefore the very idea that such a thing as “reverse racism” exists is malarkey. And also the “racism” against white people is showing them to be either snooty or nervous around Lebanese people, so put down that phone because talkback radio doesn’t need to hear from you just yet.
(unless you want to comment about the slightly odd fact that as of Feb 10th all the Anglo cast have their own wikipedia pages while none of the Lebanese cast do)
“But isn’t there a joke about how Fou Fou makes a living from cash-in-hand carport building and dodgy compo claims while not paying tax?” Well shit, if you’re going to raise an eyebrow over that we might as well just declare open race war here and now. Fou Fou is a small businessman in a sitcom; it’d be more cause for concern if he wasn’t maximising his profits.
Channel Nine is not in the market for any kind of even mildly subversive or controversial comedy: that’s why they took on a show from Jungle, a comedy team who are yet to create a show with any more impact than a mild bath. That’s also why the basic set-up – poor but good-hearted folk move to the fancy part of town to the chagrin of the fancy folks – stopped being cutting edge well before The Beverly Hillbillies. Are there jokes about these salt-of-the-earth folks spending their new fortune in extravagant ways? You know there are; that’s why you make this kind of show.
That’s not to say this is completely without merit. Not everyone here is a walking cartoon character, which puts it a step above the various Moody series. Everyone in the big cast seems to have their own clearly-defined subplot – something a show like Upper Middle Bogan doesn’t always manage – and while none of them are particularly exciting (star-crossed lovers! The spouses become friends while their partners are bitter enemies!) there’s enough of them to hold out the promise of a fair bit happening over the course of the first six episodes.
The trouble is, none of this is all that funny. Some have already said that’s because this has to take the time to set up the situation and characters; if anyone seriously thinks a show on Channel Nine is going to get funnier over time they haven’t been watching television for the past thirty years. It’s the drama that’s going to be ramped up here, not the laughs – they’re pretty much all coming from the premise anyway and that’s not going to get any funnier.
If this series was running longer than six weeks we’d bet that the comedy angle would be quietly ditched entirely a few episodes in – remember when House Husbands was meant to be a comedy? – to allow the show to become yet another bland dramedy where the comedy gets shunted into the ‘C’ plot where the supporting cast can have a bit of a wacky adventure to break up the dashes to hospital or the relationship problems or whatever the hell else those shows put on to distract the audience from the inevitable nature of their eventual demise.
(oh wait, when scenes end on “dramatic notes” like keying a cheating boyfriend’s car, we’re already firmly in dramedy territory)
Maybe that’s the only way a show like this could air on an Australian commercial network in 2016. Rather than a comedy that pokes fun at the state of race relations – and by doing so pointed out a few uncomfortable truths – we get a mild dramedy that lets us know that deep down we’re all really just decent folks wanting to do the best by our families.
Personally, we’d prefer a serious comedy that told us we’re all nasty pieces of work.