It’s been a long time since John Safran was on our television screens, and on last night’s special The Goddam Election! it kinda showed. Not in his performance as host, which continued to walk the line between charmingly geeky and slightly less charmingly geeky; nor his interview technique, which skillfully managed to win over most of his subjects while still allowing him to make some (occasionally forceful) points. But the show itself, while full of interesting, insightful and occasionally alarming segments, didn’t really seem to build up to anything. We had 40-odd minutes of various fringe groups linking up with other fringe groups and in the end… we had a bunch of fringe groups all linked together.
Not that the links between these groups weren’t interesting in and of themselves. Safran started out – well, he started out working on a book, but more on that later. He started out wondering what a brown preacher was doing at what was basically a White Pride rally, and from there he dug up all manner of weird connections between political groups that you would have thought would have been opposed to each other – for example, Jewish extremists and Neo-Nazis – but are now at least slightly less inclined to hate on each other thanks to their (perceived) shared enemy in Islam.
Wow, Neo-Nazis and hate rallies – sounds hilarious! And yeah, those tuning in for big laughs probably left disappointed (though the running gag about the deepening involvement in all this of Safran’s dad was pretty good). Then again, Safran hasn’t really been about out-and-out jokes for a long time: his focus has much more been on looking at the stranger recesses of religion and politics than busting out the gags.
And at a time when the Herald-Sun‘s front page reads STOP THE MADNESS over a photo of police versus exactly the kinds of rioters Safran was investigating, who are we to say “be more funny”? Oh wait, that’s pretty much all we do. Still, hopefully we’re sharp enough to know the difference between an mildly funny show that tried to be hysterical, and a mildly funny show that wasn’t really all that into being funny in the first place.
Still, even by Safran’s standards this had problems. For a guy who in previous TV series was really able to build up to a big climax – remember the exorcism ending of John Safran vs God? – the ending here was more than a little hurried. Clearly the Coburg rally / riot was meant to be the big finish, and dramatically it really should have paid off: after forty-odd minutes of exposing how all these groups had drawn new and unexpected battle lines across the Australian political landscape, we were shown where this all ends – with violence in the streets. And yet a lot of the footage seemed cut short, even when there were clear shots of things like people being hosed with capsicum spray. Perhaps there were legal issues?
Then we got the moral, which was basically “these guys are all kind of racist and opposed to multiculturalism, but they’ve actually formed a rainbow coalition of hate”. No argument there, as we’d just seen 40 minutes of White Nationalists (Safran was careful not to call them Nazis but yeah, they’re basically Nazis) who were teaming up with fringe Jewish groups to oppose Islam, Fred Nile siding with Islam to put religious values first and so on. But it just felt like it was lacking the big punch it needed to bring it all home: maybe he’s saving that for his forthcoming book.
The whole thing felt a little scrappy, as if Safran suddenly realised when the election was called that all his prior work for his book could be quickly turned into a television show without too much extra research. But perhaps we’re just being picky. Safran himself points out that his big connection with Muslim extremists got himself arrested just before he could do an interview, while no-one from the Liberal Party would even talk to him, fearing some kind of wacky prank. Shows what they know: these days Safran’s work is more about letting people hoist themselves than going through Ray Martin’s rubbish.
But with those kind of obstacles in his way, perhaps it’s no wonder the end result felt patchy and scattered. Guess we’ll just have to wait until someone slicker and more polished comes along to investigate religious and political extremists in this country.
Yeah, we’re not holding our breath.