Right from its first episode, The Librarians (ABC1, Wednesdays, 8.30pm) has been surprisingly divisive, in that it was neither obvious rubbish or amazingly hysterical. More insightful critics than us might want to discuss whether being able to provide support for shows that aren’t either pandering crap or clear genius is a sign of maturity for the Australian television industry: we just like things that are funny.
That said, it’s been pretty obvious this year that season three of The Librarians has been taking a slightly different approach. Creators and stars Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope have said in interviews that this year they felt they’d established the characters enough and it was time to have some fun with them. Some might feel that establishing the characters in a sitcom should take the first five minutes of the first episode, thus paving the way for the “having fun” viewers have come to see a good six hours earlier into the run, but… well, let’s introduce the contrasting view first.
In this week’s Age Green Guide (dated Thursday November 11), reviewer Bridget McManus writes: “In a case not so much of jumping the shark as failing to live up to rather optimistic expectations, The Librarians seems to have lost sight of its original subtlety and is milking its set-ups dry”.
The problem here is obvious: McManus has confused “subtlety” with “not actually being funny”. And that’s speaking as a fan of the first two series. A sit-com should “milk its set-ups dry”: that’s the whole point. If there are laughs to be had, those laughs should be taken – no-one walks away from a good sitcom thinking “yeah, but if only they’d taken it a little further, that would have been really funny”.
In case you were worried we were going her a little hard, McManus goes on to prove our already low opinion of her judgment in comedy matters with this: “Whereas once we cringed at the non-PC snorts of head librarian Frances (co-creator Robyn Butler), now it feels as if we’re all supposed to be having a laugh at people in wheelchairs and ethnic minorities”.
Let’s start at the start: if you think the sign of a good comedy is cringing rather than laughing, you fail. At life. One more time for the late arrivals: good comedy makes you laugh – it doesn’t make you feel pain. That’s a rule you simply can’t get around, and the only people who support the idea of “cringe comedy” are people who do not or can not laugh but don’t want to be left out when people talk about comedy around the watercooler. Of course, you can laugh at awful things and situations – Christ knows we do around here – and obviously some jokes are cruel and offensive, but when you say that your idea of good comedy is one that makes you cringe rather than laugh, you’ve got your head up your arse.
Next point: after six hours often taken up with character-establishing “cringe comedy”, The Librarians has reached a point where jokes about people in wheelchairs and minorities are not the kind of offensive crap Ricky Gervais paraded out in the second series of The Office. There he tried to have it both ways: “Oh, David Brent’s horrible, see how badly he treats that girl in a wheelchair… of course, if you’re actually laughing at the girl in the wheelchair, we’ll take that too.”
By this third series of The Librarians, we’ve already had twelve half-hour episodes establishing the characters of Dawn, Nada and everyone else. They’ve been around long enough that jokes at their expense are now jokes about them as characters, not as stereotypes – unless McManus is saying that it’s never ever possible to make funny jokes about people in wheelchairs or homosexuals or people who belong to ethnic minorities. Which is true if the jokes are simply about them as stereotypes, but again, after six hours of television time we know them well enough as characters to see them as more than just “person in wheelchair” – and there doesn’t seem to have been a sudden spate of “all people in wheelchairs are like Dawn” gags just yet.
Just to make things abundantly clear, the third season of The Librarians has been the best yet, and that’s because it’s increasingly silly and willing to have a mess around with all the characters. As a character, Frances worked largely in the first two series because of Robyn Butler’s ability as an actress to make a painful, uptight, sneering character seem slightly watchable. As mentioned earlier, the more this series moves away from the old power structure where we were supposed to cringe at the awful way she treated her underlings, and towards a model where she’s under at least as much pressure herself as she can dole out to others, the funnier it gets. And, y’know, Bob Franklin is always funny in everything, so there’s that.
Everyone’s entitled to the right opinion, which fortunately isn’t McManus’ one. The Librarians is hardly perfect, but looked at from at least one perspective – the one where comedy should be funny – this third (and, if some rumours are to be believed, final) series is a distinct and obvious step up from what’s gone before. After all, what’s the point of comedy: to make you laugh, or to make you think “gee, that last comment about immigrants was kind of embarrassing”?