Looks like we owe the team behind Mr Black an apology. Ever since we first heard about this sitcom we’ve been making wisecracks about how much it’s obviously a Kingswood Country knock-off, with a bit of Meet the Parents and All in the Family mixed in. It was simplistic and superficial of us – we were leaping to judgement based on nothing but a brief synopsis, when what we really should have done was reserved our opinion until were were able to watch at least the first episode and give the show a fair go.
Because what this show is really ripping off is Adam Zwar’s earlier series Wilfred.
Okay, “ripping off” is harsh (can you even rip off yourself?), but seriously: Wilfred was a show about a gormless wimp whose girlfriend was non-romantically devoted to a third wheel in their relationship who was constantly trying to break them up behind her (generally oblivious) back. Meanwhile, Mr Black is… you see where this is going.
There are a few tweaks here and thank God for that because Wilfred was creepy enough back in 2007; boyfriend Fin (Nick Russell) might wear a t-shirt that reads The Future is Female, but he has a bit more spine than the Wilfred version of his character (he even moves out in the first episode) and Angela (Sophie Wright) has a bit more of a clue as to what
Wilfred her father is like. Even though she does move her dad into their home on a permanent basis without telling Fin, which… yeah, not good.
But to balance that out, Mr Black is a total piece of shit.
Look, Stephen Curry is a great actor and he’s actually really good here, but the character he’s playing is not a loveable blowhard like Ted Bullpit or a well-meaning but racist and sexist dinosaur like Ted Bullpit or even someone you could stand to be in the same room with for maybe five minutes like Ted Bullpit. He’s a bully and a thug, a creepy sleaze and a dead-eyed sociopath, and considering the only moment of warmth between him and his daughter involves him playing a delightfully controlling game of “answer my random general knowledge question that came out of nowhere” we’re fairly sure the show wants us to see him that way.
Which leads to the question; who thought a version of Meet the Parents where Mr Fokker had no redeeming features whatsoever was a good idea?
When we were expecting this to be a Kingswood Country revival – and honestly, there’s still plenty of time for it to go that way – we thought “smart move Mr Black creator, writer and producer Adam Zwar”. Zwar has always been a canny judge of what the television networks want, and his CV is packed with series that, while often not to our taste, are shows that we can totally understand being made by Australian television networks.
We thought this was going to be a Kingswood Country revival because comedy today has swung back towards the light and silly. It’s big characters and wacky antics that get laughs; even something like Get Krack!n made serious points by going totally off the wall. Having an average guy dealing with a cartoon monster of a father-in-law? That fits that vibe quite nicely.
Instead, Mr Black (episode one at least) is a throwback to the golden age of Cringe Comedy, a show that takes a comedy premise, pushes it firmly into the uncomfortable area, and then just stares back at you. It doesn’t even look like a comedy, which is to say it looks polished and professional in the way of most Australian dramas but if we wanted artfully shot scenes set in chilly inner city residences we’d go to the St Kilda Film Festival.
Oh sure, there are jokes: look, Fin is telling his woes to his best friend over the phone, only it’s not his best friend, it’s a cold caller wanting to know if he’s happy with his phone plan! Previously on Mr Black: Mr Black almost drowns while trying to film women’s butts. Which is a little strange because Mr Black isn’t 60 (the press release says he’s 48 and don’t get us started on how that doesn’t work) and so not really someone who needs to create his own blurry out of focus swimsuit porn when he has… a phone?
The whole thing is weirdly misjudged: the very first scene is Mr Black stopping his mobility scooter in the middle of traffic then beating the shit out of Fin’s car when he honks his horn. Sure, you don’t fuck with Mr Black – but if the premise of the show is that Mr Black despises Fin for not being man enough for his daughter, then wouldn’t Fin standing up for himself be the kind of thing he might, you know, respect?
The power dynamic established here feels all wrong for a comedy. You get laughs out of this set-up by having Mr Black be largely ineffectual yet unaware that time has passed his kind by – if he’s a real threat to the relationship then he’s a threat, not a source of comedy. And if he’s just a nasty controlling shit, then what we’re watching isn’t a comedy tug-of-war but a creepy psychodrama about a bullied man clinging desperately to a woman who either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care that her partner is being psychologically abused by her best friend. You know, like Wilfred.
Yes, it’s the first episode and yes, they’re establishing the dynamic and yes, by the end of the episode it looks like Angela has wised up to her father and is now on Fin’s side. But why establish Mr Black as a total bastard in episode one if you’re going to have to walk that back in episode two? In Wilfred Wilfred could be a dick because at the end of the day he was still a dog and the whole show was a fantasy; the way this stands at the moment, this is just grim.
But as usual, we’re overthinking things. They’ll have to team up once or twice against a mutual bad guy, they’ll fight over the right way to help Angela when she’s in trouble, Mr Black will try to make Fin a man by going to the footy, Fin will try to educate Mr Black by doing something wanky… that’s at least five out of the next seven episodes sorted. And then the final episode will see Mr Black about to finally go into a home then at the last minute Fin says he can stay and gets hit in the balls for his trouble.
Kinda like the audience really.