Australian comedy rarely rewards original ideas. But Squinters goes one better than the usual rehashes and retreads: not only is it basically a remake of production company Jungle’s recent Stan series No Activity, but within the same format you’ll spot a number of popular comedy dynamics being dusted off and taken for a spin. Is it a new rule that one-fifth of all new ABC comedy must resemble Broad City? Don’t let them see The Good Place, the ABC’s output is hellish enough as it is.
So this is a sitcom about five batches of people who in the morning drive into work, and in the evening drive home again. It seems like the kind of idea a network would adopt largely because it’s cheap – even cheaper if, as with No Activity, they just give the cast rough outlines to improvise their dialogue from – and yet for some reason a chunk of this Sydney-set show was filmed in Los Angeles. Presumably Jacki Weaver, Sam Simmons and Tim Minchin weren’t able to return to Australia to film their parts, and they’re the kind of big names a sitcom about people sitting in cars needs to pull in the audience.
… or, you know, you could come up with a sitcom based on an interesting idea, but the people who greenlight Australian comedy seem actively allergic to that kind of thing. It’s this grim fixation on the idea that the only possible thing audiences tune in for is personalities that gives us year after year of largely forgettable comedy from the National Broadcaster; almost every memorable sitcom ever made turned its cast into much-loved personalities, not the other way around. Putting big names into a shit show creates a shit show: putting unknowns into a great show makes them stars.
But we have to make do with what we have, which in the case of Squinters is solidly professional and occasionally amusing. Five cars spread across around 25 minutes of sitcom means we only get under five minutes with each car (once the constant shots of busy streets and highways plus co-creator Adam Zwar’s voice-over traffic reports are taken into account) – it’s basically a sketch show where every sketch is just two people talking to each other. Remember how loathed the restaurant sketches were on Fast Forward and Full Frontal were because they were just two people talking? No? That’s how this show got made.
Car number one on its way to Kosciuszko headquarters is carrying middle-aged Lukas (Sam Simmons) and his mum Audrey (Jackie Weaver); he’s hoping for a promotion, she’s taking her dog to a breeding session, and if you find awkward sex chat hilarious this is the segment for you as Audrey suggests her corpse could be turned into a diamond that Lukas could use as a tongue stud and Lukas – who is gay – points out that they’re made for “pleasure”. This is easily the broadest segment of the show, but the trip back (where things have taken a turn for the worst for Lukas) salvages the character to some extent… though really, both there and back are largely excuses for Simmons to do his patented strangulated “I’m not yelling” voice.
Car two features Paul (Tim Minchin) who has clearly set up a fake carpool to get his unknowing crush Romi (Andrea Demetriades) into his not-at-all-suspicious white van. The hilarious comedy dynamic here is that he’s a quiet, sensitive type, while she’s more confident and starts bringing up masturbation at random on the first drive. This one works reasonably well because it’s about the characters interacting: “will they or won’t they” is rightly mocked as a character dynamic in comedy but for four minutes a week it’s tolerable.
Macca (Juston Rosniak) and Ned (Steen Raskopoulos) have known each other since high school… where Macca bullied everyone around him. This feels like Zwar returning to the dynamic of Wilfred: a smart, subdued nerdy type has to deal with an aggressively rough-as-guts Aussie-as type. Plus more sex jokes, this time about Macca having to wank at work for stress relieve (plus he can’t wank at home because his wife’s always there). You know when you think back over all the classic comedy sketches of yesteryear and realise that almost all of them involved characters who were either physically doing things or meeting each other for the first time and you’re working on a show where neither of those are options? Jokes about wanking.
At least the car with Simoni (Susie Youssef) and her free-spirited bestie Talia (Rose Matafeo) doesn’t feature any wanking jokes, because the dynamic between the two, uh, owes a large debt to Broad City. But Broad City is (well, was) a pretty good show, so this plot – Simoni is taking Talia to a job interview so she can contribute financially to the small business they’re planning together – is one of the better ones. It doesn’t hurt that this is also the one with the most straightforward comedy concept, though it seems that after this week the new status quo is going to leave them with nowhere to go* but a run of episodes based on the exact same joke.
As for car five, in which mum Bridget (Mandy McElhinney) is driving teenage daughter Mia (Jenna Owen) to school, this one has a few too many ideas going on: Bridget is trying to live through her daughter (“don’t make the same mistakes I did”, etc) while also trying to manage her dating life, while Mia is horrified by the very idea of her mother getting laid but also has a wacky boyfriend who seems to have wandered in from a completely different show.
The best installments are generally the ones where the drama is based entirely inside the car: the possible relationship between Paul and Romi, how work upsets the relationship between Simoni and Talia. That’s because this is a show set entirely inside cars: the stuff going on outside is only relevant when it impacts on the situation inside the car. Bridget’s romantic life is only interesting because it impacts on her relationship with her daughter, because her relationship with her daughter is what her segment is about. Jokes about outside stuff might be funny, but if they don’t connect to the core point of the sketch then they’re going to stop being funny pretty quickly.
Put another way, Romi talking about wanking is both funny and relevant: if Paul wants to be in a relationship with her, the fact that they have different attitudes to sex is kinda important. Macca talking about wanking is just some boofhead talking shit about jerking off – it’s funny at first but it doesn’t take long to start thinking “who cares?”
And with Squinters, you might find yourself thinking that a little too often.
*so many opportunities came up to say Squinters is “going in circles”. So many.