The Drama Builds

For years we’ve been complaining that Australian comedies keep trying to get more dramatic. But what about the flipside? No, not that crap “romantic comedy” starring Eddie Izzard that was nominated for a Tumblie last year: what about the Australian dramas trying to muscle in on comedy’s turf?

The muscling in comes pretty close to literal in the ABC’s Les Norton, starring Alexander Bertrand as a walking Chesty Bond advertisement prowling around the one side of half of one street the producers could afford to recreate of 80s-era Kings Cross. He’s a bouncer-slash-enforcer for the local crime boss (David Wenham), though the crimes are more along the lines of wacky capers than brutal murders – and with Rebel Wilson heavily promoted as one of the leads, it seems highly unlikely that her “demise” at the end of last week’s episode is going to stick.

Crime is pretty much the only genre Australia makes enough of to be able to take a variety of approaches to, which means even this is part of a long, if not all that healthy, tradition (anyone remember Marcus Graham’s Good Guys, Bad Guys? The ABC’s crooked cop joke-free sitcom Bad Cop Bad Cop?). What comedy there is here is meant to come from the characters and plot twists rather than one-liners, which is a refreshing change from the norm in Australian sitcoms, and because there’s an actual story going on (the series is based on the novels by Robert G Barrett) things keep moving along even when the laughs aren’t there.

So this is worth a look then? Eh, kind of. While it’s a step up from Underbelly, this kind of romp really needs a lot more energy to be worthwhile, and a few good performances can’t make up for the fact that a lot of the other performances are a bit average. Not being familiar with the novels it’s hard to know, but it seems like a lot of the rough edges have been sanded off here too; aside from Les himself, nothing here really feels all that distinctive or memorable, and there’s no sense at all of “the Cross” being more than a few shop fronts and a back alley.

Then again, there’s bound to be a lot more Rebel Wilson in this moving forward. You’ve been warned.

*

With Andrew (“I worked with Steve Vizard on Full Frontal among many other things”) Knight being partly responsible for the original SeaChange, the series had decent comedy credentials from the start. Not only did it get in first with a local version of the then-and-now popular genre of “city type moves to the wacky country” a la Northern Exposure, it did a decent job of being both dramatic enough to lure in regular viewers (mostly thanks to the will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension with Diver Dan) and funny enough thanks to the wacky locals to be a real hit.

And now it’s back! Only now it’s twenty years later and on Channel Nine with around half the original cast and filmed in a different state. It’s a bit harder to judge with this one after a first episode, but it definitely felt like a lot of gears were being stripped trying to get the engine started here. Which is a problem with a series who’s big selling point was (and is) the idea of escaping the hustle and bustle for a simpler life.

Also, where’s the laughs? SeaChange was never a gag machine but the comedy was always there, while so far here all that remains is the faint outline. There are characters (mostly returning ones) that are clearly meant to be seen as funny, but… yeah, nah. The spark isn’t here yet, and it’s not exactly sure that this version of SeaChange even wants to bring it back.

Despite what some would have you believe, good comedy isn’t about being gentle. There has to be some edge in there, a surprising insight or cutting take somewhere to get a laugh out of an audience. This doesn’t seem to want to be much more than a soothing bath of nostalgia, and while that’s hardly surprising in a reboot – even Sigrid Thornton occupies a very different space in the national psyche than she did twenty years ago – it’s pretty much the enemy of good comedy.

It’s always possible this will find a way to poke fun at the past and find comedy in present-day Pearl Bay, but unlike Les Norton – which if nothing else has fully integrated the comedy side of proceedings into the drama from day one – this hasn’t even set out a case for being considered funny yet. It’s perfectly possible that, unlike the original series, this will be happy drifting along on a cloud of twee nostalgia and bland no-stakes drama.

And we’ve already got Rosehaven for that.

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