A hefty chunk of the ABC’s scripted comedy wrapped up last night, and it’s a sign of just how forgettable much of the ABC’s output has been over the last year (okay, years) that they’ve already both pretty much vanished from our memories. Why is it only the shockers we remember? We’re still waking up in a cold sweat after nightmares about Randling.
Of the pair Upper Middle Bogan was clearly the superior project, even though this third season did show a little wear and tear. It’s a definite flaw in the Australian model that most of our scripted comedy is neither as proudly formulaic as your average American sitcom nor as sharply observed as the best of the UK’s output, leaving us with shows that often start to feel a little tired by their second series (*cough Utopia cough*). Strong performances and enough storytelling hooks to keep the storylines coming helped out, but this time around it was fairly clear that of the ten or so characters only about half were reliable laugh-getters.
That said, one of UMB‘s constant strengths has been the way it’s been able to wring laughs out of mixing and matching the entire cast, and the way the two families seemed more integrated this season did pay off. Unlike a lot of Australian comedies where it’s clear that the writers really only came up with a handful of comedy pairings – again, in Utopia there’s never any reason to put Rob Sitch and Celia Pacquola together because they’re both playing the same character – even when UMB had two characters that were comedy idiots (oh wait, that was everyone except for the nerdy daughter, the angry mum and the snooty grandmother), they were usually different kinds of comedy idiots (ditzy versus mellow, for example) and so could strike off each other in funny ways even when the plots were lacking.
(also, has there been another comedy in recent memory that was so consistently about rich people? Bogan or not, both sides of the divide were on the whole extremely cashed-up, and while the show was both well aware of this – see the episode about buying all the best possible camping gear for a trip meant to toughen the kids up – and often mocked it, it still kind of felt there was a culture clash angle there that wasn’t being fully exploited even when the show was trying to talk about money)
Rosehaven, on the other hand, only really came to life when stars Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola were together, because despite being a scripted (by them) series where they both played characters that were not Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola for long, long stretches it felt like a show where they just hung out together and riffed about stuff. There was a whole bunch of your typical fish-out-of-water material lying around, but the series never really felt all that interested in picking it up.
Part of the problem is that there were really two shows here. One was about the friendship between Luke and Celia’s characters, and if this had been a halfway decent US sitcom that would have been the whole focus – come up with some vaguely coherent hook for the show (“it’s like The Odd Couple, but one’s a chick!”) that won’t be too distracting and just let them be funny together.
The other was your more traditional fish-out-of-water dramedy where some city dude finds themselves stuck in the country surrounded by quirky comedy types and the comedy just happens because we’ve seen it all a million times before. But much of the comedy (and the drama) comes from having a lead who is a fish-out-of-water – not a fish-with-another-fish-they-can-turn-to-right-there-by-their-side-in-the-water. “Oh no, I’m finding it really hard to adjust to this new town oh wait lucky I bought my bestie with me” is not a formula for laughs, drama, or much of anything else.
It almost would have been preferable if they’d been playing a married couple; at least then they would have been a unit trying to fit into a new place. But by having them as best friends too often the show felt like it was just telling the same kinds of stories twice. The episodes that worked best were ones where they had distinctly different situations going on – Celia dealing with the council workers hanging around the house while Luke was being bullied at the local radio was a highpoint. But mostly they were too similar – not as characters, but in their situation as young urban types adrift in a country town (again, putting them in a location where the setting wasn’t a big deal would have made for a better show because it would have shifted the focus to their differences rather than the way that they were the same) – to really make it feel like we needed the show to be about both of them.
But good news! Neither show was a complete disaster. Upper Middle Bogan probably won’t be back, but producers Gristmill definitely should be – their generally optimistic mainstream suburban comedy is exactly the kind of thing Australia needs to make on a consistent basis. As for Rosehaven, well… hopefully it’ll improve as the two leads get a better handle on what kind of show they’re making. Though considering it’s partly funded by the Tasmanian government, fingers crossed that show doesn’t turn out to be “quirky tourism video”.