You know how sometimes you get an idea stuck in your head and you just can’t shake it? No, we’re not talking about wondering why Tom Gleeson has his own show; we mentioned this line from The Guardian’s review of Get Krack!n a while back –
Not long ago, most of us had never heard of Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney; now we can barely imagine Australian comedy without them.
– and while we pointed out at the time it was a bit off-base considering their lengthy comedy careers, the fact that a professional television reviewer would think it was a reasonable observation has stuck with us.
See, it’s not like the two Kates lunged at Australian comedy from out of nowhere. Kate McLennan’s career includes a range of comparatively high-profile sketch shows (Let Loose Live, Live From Planet Earth, The Mansion), while Kate McCartney also has a bunch of sketch work to her name (Big Bite, Hamish & Andy) and appearances on a range of Australia’s increasingly popular dramedies (Offspring, The Time of Our Lives). They’re not new to this.
But what’s happened in the decade since they both started their comedy careers is that Australian television comedy has lost pretty much all interest in developing new talent. The networks are more than happy to find new talent and give them a go – see the ABC’s endless run of online-only talent competitions – but as far as giving anyone a chance to actually go beyond being “the next big thing”… yeah, nah.
Partly that’s because those sketch shows the Kates were in were… well, they were shit. Sketch comedies pretty much died out here a decade ago and they’d been mostly rubbish for about a decade before that. But that was largely because they were written by the same tight-knit group of shithouse writer-producers who have since gone onto fortune and infamy while the actual talent on the shows was hung out to dry.
Without sketch shows, Australian television has done a disastrous job of developing the next generation of comedy talent. Both The Chaser and Hamish & Andy have been around for close to 15 years; Chris Lilley got his big break on Big Bite over a decade ago. Working Dog and Shaun Micallef have been around for twenty years or more. Wil Anderson is no spring chicken. Neither are the Gristmill team. You get the picture.
That’s not to say no-one’s risen through the ranks. Anne Edmonds is getting a bit of attention at the moment thanks to the one-two punch of her appearances on Get Krack!n and her own series The Edge of the Bush, but she’s had five years of relatively steady work since her debut on Wednesday Night Fever (mostly with sketch troupe Fancy Boy, but also on Dirty Laundry Live) to hone her skills. We can talk about talent and having the right attitude to comedy until we’re blue in the face, but if you’re not getting a regular chance to develop your skills you’re not going to be able to make decent television.
The obvious solution is to clear out the dead wood – and with Chris Lilley at least, that seems to have happened. But the oldies are still funny; the problem isn’t that we’re not getting (some) good comedy, it’s that we’re not giving the next generation – or at this stage, the one coming up after that – the chance to become as good as the oldies they’ll eventually replace. There’s simply nowhere for people to seriously develop their television skills, which means that even when skilled comedy performers get promoted to the big leagues (well, the Australian big leagues, which, ha) they often stumble. Remember Woodley? Sammy J and Randy in Ricketts Lane? Problems? Super Fun Night? Okay, not that last one.
Like all right-thinking people, we’re really enjoying Get Krack!n. But it’s not without flaws. Some of the ideas are great in theory but not in practice, the tone can be a little too all over the place, occasionally episodes seem to lose their way and some of the segments land more firmly on “weird” than they do “funny”. Is it better than most ABC comedy? No doubt. Is it better than the second season of The Katering Show? Maybe not.
The Kates made their comedy debuts on sketch shows well over a decade ago. Imagine what they’d be capable of now if they’d been able to get steady work in television comedy for the last decade. Imagine how much more choice we’d have when it comes to comedy today if there’d been steady work available for anyone in television comedy over the last decade. This country has a shitload of comedy talent out there getting rusty while nobody at the networks seems to have any idea how to use them.
Mind you, Tom Gleeson’s got his own show.
For a while now we’ve been enjoying the occasional, but very much worth the wait, podcasts from the TEAM Effort team. That’s T for Tony Martin, E for Ed Kavalee, A for Ash Williams, M for Lawrence “Moonman” Mooney and Effort for, um, the guests, who have included the likes of Tom Gleisner, Leigh Sales, Jane Kennedy and Hamish Blake.
If you liked Get This, this is very much the Martin/Kavalee reunion you’ve been waiting for; they’re even playing clips of Rex Hunt saying “How good is this?”. And amazingly, given how Get This ended (it was axed by Triple M in circumstances that suggested management weren’t exactly fans of the show), the TEAM Effort is made by Triple M and produced by Triple M Melbourne’s Hot Breakfast producer Jay Mueller in the studios of Triple M.
It probably helps that Kavalee’s a big name at the M’s these days, being the co-host of the Brisbane breakfast show, but even so, it seems like a miracle that this show actually exists. This is a Triple M production where no one talks about sport or tries to appeal to whatever tradies are supposed to be into. How did this slip through the net? Are the TEAM breaking into the studios at night and bribing the security guards to keep schtum?
However they managed to get it out there, the TEAM Effort is exactly the kind of freewheeling chat you’d expect from a podcast involving four men talking to each other, but made with the sort of quality and care and attention that only a group of people with decades of broadcasting and stand-up experience between them are going to turn out. Oh, and to get back to our wonder at how the hell this is managing to go out under the Triple M banner, much of the conversation in recent episodes seems to have been about executives that various members of the TEAM have encountered at Triple M or its parent company Austereo. This is exactly the kind of sailing-close-to-the-wind material that presumably got Get This axed – how good is this?!
In fact, the TEAM Effort is a show that’s rapidly putting many of the other well-known comedy podcasts to shame; its most recent episode made it to number 12 in the iTunes Australian podcasting charts. Not a bad effort, TEAM Effort, not bad at all.
So presumably this makes sense to someone:
Comedian Wil Anderson is set to return to radio as a host on Triple M’s Hot Breakfast, joining Eddie McGuire and Luke Darcy.
For once we’re not being snarky: while we’ve known Mick Molloy was moving on from his breakfast radio gig for a while now, having once again worked his way up the radio ranks to become a prime-time player, we kinda figured his replacement would be someone like the much-touted option of Lawrence Mooney. You know, a knockabout blokey comedian who officially likes sport and would know his place in the scheme of things.
And knowing your place is a very important consideration when you’re working alongside Eddie McGuire. Molloy was very much the comedy relief in the early days of The Hot Breakfast, and while it seems logical to suggest the show’s improvement in the ratings has come about in large part thanks to Molloy’s growing stature in Melbourne’s AFL-focused media – his not-The-Footy-Show-footy-show The Front Bar is currently rating extremely well – it was always very clear that he was not the main attraction.
(well, he was if you were listening to hear funny stuff, but Molloy is a professional who was in at least some ways rebuilding his career; having been around once before, he knew how to keep his head down)
Wil Anderson, on the other hand, has had a somewhat different career. Anderson is a very successful stand-up comedian who’s hosted his own breakfast radio show and been front and center as host on a pair of long-running ABC panel shows. He doesn’t exactly seem like someone you’d hire expecting him to play second fiddle to a game show host whose main qualification for anything beyond that is that he currently runs a football club.
Yet everybody (in Melbourne) knows that if Eddie McGuire is on a show, it’s the Eddie McGuire show. We couldn’t possibly give less of a fuck about sport and even we’ve heard rumours that part of the deal to lure Eddie McGuire back to hosting The Footy Show earlier this year was that Channel Nine’s other footy show – the much more serious and news-based Footy Confidential – would either be downgraded our outright axed because if Eddie’s hosting a footy show then that’s the network’s only footy show. But he’s reportedly good mates with the Working Dog folks so maybe he respects comedians more than he does rival footy show hosts.
No doubt this makes sense to everyone for all manner of reasons. Anderson probably wants a steady job in his home town. Triple M want a big name to get people to listen to their morning show. McGuire wants to be the host of the number one breakfast radio show in Melbourne. Mick Molloy wants to step up to the drivers seat after six years playing third fiddle on breakfast radio. Everybody wins.
We just can’t see this particular team-up lasting all that long.
Press release time!
Fans of comedy legend Shaun Micallef rejoice… Australia’s longest serving caretaker Prime Minister Andrew Dugdale is back in a new series of The Ex-PM. Beloved comics Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor return to quirky country life in a second season of Rosehaven. And, motherhood and mayhem go hand in hand in mothers’ group comedy The Letdown, starring Alison Bell and Noni Hazlehurst – and based on the Comedy Showroom pilot named Best Television Screenplay at the 2016 AACTA Awards.
ABC Head of Television David Anderson says “We’re lucky here in Australia to have such dynamic and risk-taking comedy talent. It means there is always a sense of freshness and edge in what we get to see. Next month’s line up is no different – Rosehaven, The Letdown and The Ex-PM are a great showcase of Australian comedy at its best. We look forward to sharing triple the laughs with our audiences!”
ABC Head of Comedy Rick Kalowski says “These three series Rosehaven, The Ex-PM and The Letdown – the first a small town charmer, the second a joke-packed political satire, the third an often heartbreaking comedy-drama, from creators/stars both established and new – speak to the ABC’s unceasing commitment to be the home of Australian comedy of every kind. We couldn’t be prouder of all three shows.”
Rosehaven Wednesday 25 October at 9:05pm
Daniel (Luke McGregor) and Emma (Celia Pacquola) are back in a second season of their hit, award-winning Rosehaven. They’re housemates and workmates again and finally both feel like they belong. The question now is whether Rosehaven agrees. Also stars Kris McQuade, Katie Robertson, David Quirk and Sam Cotton. Sundance TV (USA) now co-presents the show with ABC TV, bringing this quintessentially Aussie comedy to the rest of the world.
The Letdown Wednesday 25 October at 9.35pm
The Letdown is the story of Audrey (Alison Bell), a struggling new mum, and the parents group she thinks she doesn’t need. The series proves that being a parent can be both extreme and hilarious. Directed by Trent O’Donnell the show also stars Noni Hazlehurst, Duncan Fellows, Sacha Horler, Leon Ford, Lucy Durack, Celeste Barber, Leah Vandenberg, Xana Tang and Sarah Peirse. Netflix will stream the series globally outside Australia and it will be available on Netflix in Australia after its run on the ABC.
The Ex-PM Thursday 26 October at 8.30pm
Comedy is back on Thursday nights with the return of the hit series The Ex-PM. Retired, third longest serving caretaker Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Dugdale (Shaun Micallef) is called back into the political fold to run in a sudden, ‘must win’ by-election. Also stars Nicki Wendt, Kate Jenkinson, Francis Greenslade, Nicholas Bell, Lucy Honigman, Ming-Zhu Hii, Jackson Tozer and the late, great John Clarke in his final television appearance.
The Letdown episode 1 is the original award winning pilot, now starring Duncan Fellows as Jeremy, with 6 brand new episodes to follow.
The original seasons of Rosehaven and The Ex-PM will be available on ABC iview from Wednesday 11 October and Friday 13 October respectively.
Do we really need to point out that two out of three – the least interesting two at that – are international co-productions? Of course not. “We’re lucky here in Australia to have such dynamic and risk-taking comedy talent,” remember? Because comedy series about a quirky small country town and motherhood are such big risks.
And anyway, if we were to suggest that trying to make a comedy for an international audience automatically results in bland, middle-of-the-road material designed to generate not strong feelings either way, anyone sensible reading this could throw back a dozen examples from here and overseas of comedy series this century that have done well the world over while still maintaining their “freshness and edge”.
Just none made by the ABC.
In the wake of Rebel Wilson receiving a record payout as a result of winning her defamation lawsuit against Bauer Media, where does humanity possibly go from here? It’s the size of the payout that’s news-worthy; anyone with eyes to see knew she was going to win the second it was announced it was a jury trial – good luck finding six people in this country who won’t side with a celebrity against a gossip magazine – and it seems the judge figured Wilson’s career was on a massive upswing after Pitch Perfect 2 so why not give her all the money?
The judge accepted without qualification that I had an extremely high reputation and that the damage inflicted on me was substantial.
— Rebel Wilson (@RebelWilson) September 13, 2017
Wilson has since made it perfectly clear that she’s not going to be keeping the cash, instead handing it out to various as yet unspecified groups:
I’m looking forward to helping out some great Australian charities and supporting the Oz film industry with the damages I’ve received.
— Rebel Wilson (@RebelWilson) September 13, 2017
It seems an extremely safe bet that the media – Bauer Media in particular – will be monitoring very closely whether Rebel “most definitely not a serial liar” Wilson follows through on her pledge.
But the most interesting thing here is this tweet:
Today was the end of a long and hard court battle against Bauer Media who viciously tried to take me down with a series of false articles.
— Rebel Wilson (@RebelWilson) September 13, 2017
Specifically the phrase “false articles”. Because the thing is – and we’re totally not legal experts, let’s get that straight, we’re just going on what we’ve read – it’s doesn’t seem to have been the case that Bauer Media were found guilty of making shit up.
In light of this general acceptance Wilson had somewhat rewritten her own history to benefit her career and created mystery around her Hollywood persona, some have argued it was Wilson’s captivating performance in the court room which won the day, rather than the debate about the facts themselves.
But Justice Dixon dismissed the publisher’s arguments revealing Wilson’s background and branding her as a liar was trivial, saying in the judgement: “At the height of the plaintiff’s career, an international career that she had worked to build over 17 years, Bauer Media launched a calculated, baseless and unjustifiable public attack on her reputation.
Rather, while many of their basic facts were true – Wilson altered her age, fabricated much of her history, claimed to be related to Walt Disney despite no concrete evidence for it, and so on – Bauer Media were still wrong to publish articles based on those facts.
In Victoria at least, things can be defamatory even if they’re true. If a major newspaper was to write a cover story on the time Rebel Wilson dropped out of Jenny Craig with the headline REBEL WILSON: STILL FAT, it seems a fairly safe bet that legal trouble would ensue even though it could be argued that the story was technically true.
So the case here wasn’t so much that Bauer Media lied about Wilson, though there does seem to be at least a few areas where some of their facts were sketchy. Rather, it’s that by publishing a version of the truth in the way that they did, they intentionally did damage to her reputation that caused her to lose money. The judge, who swallowed whole Wilson’s legal team’s word for how successful her career was going at the time, established the massive damages payout based on that.
(personally, we would have thought the massive TV flop that was her sitcom Super Fun Night might have damaged her Hollywood career somewhat more than some stories in Woman’s Day. Not to mention between Pitch Perfects 1 and 2 Wilson appeared in a grand total of two films: Pain & Gain and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, both of which were little more than cameos. If we’d been called to give evidence, we might have said that her career path at the time – two minor roles and a flop TV series over two years – might have suggested that her big pay day in Pitch Perfect 2 was more about the franchise paying big to get her back than the amount of money she could legitimately expect to attract to appear in movies without the words “Pitch Perfect” in the title)
The upshot of all this is, Wilson sued and won over a magazine writing stories about her that were, in a number of ways, technically true. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. You can write a story about Rebel Wilson that is factually correct, and if she thinks the tone of your story is defamatory she can sue you and – based on this result – take you to the cleaners for millions. The precedent has been set that because of Wilson’s line of work, it’s perfectly reasonable for her to “[rewrite] her own history to benefit her career and [create] mystery around her Hollywood persona”; if media organisations have facts that say otherwise, they’d better keep them to themselves.
Of course, many people are going to (rightly) argue that we all know the difference between a story that’s a hit-piece and a legitimate piece of journalism. But that’s not the point here. Wilson was, as previously stated, pretty much a lock to win this case because she’s a much-loved star and gossip magazines are scum; the big pay out is because the stories were supposedly timed to do maximum damage to her career.
But when then is the right time to point out that Wilson’s background is sketchy? If she was an up-and-coming actor or a struggling bit player, these stories could still conceivably prevent her from one day landing a potentially million-dollar role; if she’s ever made a big pay day but those days are behind her, well, actors make comebacks all the time. How are we to know another big paying role wasn’t just around the corner?
In the light of this, it seem fairly safe to suggest that coverage of Rebel Wilson in the Australian press in future will be… spotty. At best. Why risk reporting on her in any way when even the driest facts could be seen as an attack on her right to create mystery around herself? Why take the chance on conducting an interview with someone who’s been given a go-ahead by the courts to rewrite her own history? And what can you safely mention about her now anyway? Not her age, not her family history, and almost certainly not her past career as any mention of it in less than glowing terms could be seen by Wilson as “an attempt to take me down”.
As for us. we won’t be mentioning her again until she does something funny. It could be a long wait.
Okay, so we’ve already made our moral objections to Gruen painfully clear. Someone has to: a few days ago we heard an ABC radio host describe Gruen as a show that “hates advertising”. Yeah, it hates advertising so much all it does is show ads. This is a show where a panelist can say with a straight face “future advertising is not false advertising… it’s a clever use of our own imagination” and not get stabbed on live TV. It’s a disgrace.
Something else it also is, is boring. Really, really boring. It’s a 35 minute show where for at least 20 minutes a bunch of tosspots sat around a desk discussing ways to advertise the NBN. It’s a show so boring that when a pathetically poor joke about a NBN commercial slogan is made – something along the lines of “Hey, the real slogan should be ‘Can’t someone else do it?'” – the audience cheers so loudly the show comes to a halt. Maybe they thought Wil Anderson was announcing his resignation.
Look, we all know the formula here. Show a commercial, Anderson makes a dad joke – seriously, lines like “Love the NBN logo, it’s like their coverage – spotty!” are the kind of shit jokes other characters roll their eyes at in shit sitcoms – the panelists throw around buzzwords like “branding problem” and “comprehension issue” to make the audience feel like insiders, and eventually things stagger to the sole other segment this show has, where advertising firms get to advertise themselves by working to some lame comedy brief. We often crap on about how Gruen is one long ad for advertising, but “The Pitch” is a literal ad for the agencies involved; if anyone still gave a fuck about the ABC charter this would get them taken off the air.
Occasionally the show seems dimly aware that they’re promoting one of the nastier and more evil industries in our society. A panelist discussing sales strategies will say something like “In advertising we call it aspiration, but it’s envy”, thus risking the audience’s realisation that yes, this is a show that celebrates an industry based around exploiting a real life Deadly Sin; while discussing an commercial sneering at hipsters Anderson will say “How do you decide, as an industry, on a hate group” and there’ll be just the slightest pause before everyone goes on about how mocking people is all in good fun and they’re really in on the gag and it’s basically celebrating their targets anyway. Oh ho ho ho. We can’t wait until they explain some of the dodgier “No” campaign ads for the gay marriage referendum as “basically celebrating their targets”.
But yeah, mostly it’s just boring. What kind of entertainment are we meant to extract from Wil Anderson saying “I checked when my area is getting the NBN and it’s not until 2019”? That sounds pretty good considering it’s got to go all the way across the Pacific Ocean to his place in LA. Which, we’ve got to assume, is where he’d live the whole year round if he didn’t have to come back here to record Gruen.
Even the one single line you’d expect us to enjoy – Russel Howcroft saying “Someone is finally putting some comedy on air” after a mildly amusing commercial for burgers – only reminded us of how smug and pointless this show really is. Of course he has no idea that comedy – actual decent comedy – was occupying his timeslot just a week earlier, because that comedy was on the ABC and the ABC doesn’t run commercials and commercials are the only thing on television he cares about. It’d be like us making some wry observation about sport: a total waste of everybody’s time.
And then Todd Sampson said with a straight face “It’s not hypocrisy, it’s advertising”. Like there’s any fucking difference.
One of the stand-out cameos in Get Krackin last week was Anne Edmonds as fashion expert Helen Bidou, a near-perfect parody of the sort of TV personality who’d continue to smile inanely and prattle on even as she was being forced into a straightjacket by the sort of mental health workers who presumably no longer exist.
Edmonds specialises in creating grotesque characters and parodies and taking them as far as they can be taken before they become unfunny. Some might say they do become unfunny. There was certainly some debate here at Tumbleweed Towers about that recently. For one of us, Helen Bidou was so exaggerated and awful that she stopped being funny entirely.
So, what to make of The Edge of the Bush, where Edmonds plays a family of mercurial characters with a dark secret in her trademark style. Well, maybe it’ll improve, but one episode in and we’re not exactly hooked. Clearly, whatever happened to split the Watts family apart is so big and complicated that it takes more than 10 minutes to set it up. Which is a bit of a problem when each episode is 10 minutes long and they’re aired a week apart – and when, based on episode 1, they’re not exactly hilarious or full of characters you wish to spend time with.
Also, there’s something really jarring about the way The Edge of the Bush is full of incredibly over-the-top characters but is also a stylistic parody of shows like The Killing and Top of the Lake. Not only does the Scandi noir-esque background music and moody lighting really kill the comedy, it’s hard to deal with crazy comedy characters on top of a dark, twisted plot. It’s like every element of the show has been dialed up to 11; watching this feels exhausting!
We like Edmonds and the way she throws everything she’s got into her creations, but there needs to be more light and shade in The Edge of the Bush. And it’s pity there isn’t because there’s some good stuff in this show. Dusty’s songs about sheep and other outback Australiana are brilliantly – and deliberately – badly written. And the send-ups of callisthenics and the Watts family’s enthusiasm for it are Kath & Kim-esque marvels of suburban parody and choreographical horror.
Perhaps The Edge of the Bush will find its feet in episode 2, but from what we’ve seen, we fear the rest of this series will be more of the same.
Ok, so Gruen is back tomorrow night after close to a year away, and what’s changed? Oh that’s right: the world has gone to shit. And here’s a fun fact: it’s all advertising’s fault.
The theory is that the numerous shitful things that have happened over the last year or so – Brexit, the rise of Trump, haters hating at a level even we didn’t think was possible – have largely come about because of forces unleashed by social media. It’s never been easier to spread a whole load of bullshit around onto gullible people… and you can probably guess where we’re going with this.
But it’s a firm fact that the reason social media (which, lets be honest, is really just “the media” these days) has developed the way it has – fake news is fine, hate speech is a-ok, shouting at each other is the way to “nail it”, and so on – is because social media needs to make money. And the way it makes money is through advertising.
Not only does that mean that social media is full of ads, but the way social media works is built around selling you stuff. And because things that outrage people (yet also confirm their ideas of how the world works) are what people click on, social media is designed to encourage the spread of those items. You know, fake news. Dividing people down every fault line possible. Claiming “free speech” every time literal Nazis call for all the evil shit Nazis generally do. Clips from The Weekly. Ok, maybe not that last one.
Obviously it didn’t have to be this way. Social media could have developed in ways that weren’t designed entirely to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. But advertising wanted it this way and they’re the ones with the money when it comes to the media, so here we are: in a shitty place where everyone’s worst instincts are being encouraged while society faces a whole lot of problems advertisers would like us to ignore because a divided population is an outraged population and an outraged population isn’t thinking, which makes them a lot easier to sell stuff to.
Welcome back, Gruen. Please, tell us more about how advertising solves all our problems.
Comedy isn’t a competition, but there’s only so many hours in a day so why settle for second best? Hackneyed writers spouting cliches we may very well be, but even we can recognise that Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell is the best Australian comedy of the year.
Do we even need to write a new one of these posts?
Seven seasons in it remains remarkably consistent, in a way usually only seen in the kind of shouty panel shows that really can’t get any worse. Of course, there are changes if you go looking (especially if you consider Micallef’s previous fake news series Newstopia to be a close relation). Micallef himself has loosened up, while the show has settled down; if it turns out that the first ten minutes or so are just Micallef delivering news jokes to camera, these days he can pull it off – usually by throwing in a few wacky expressions to vary the tone.
It felt like there were slightly less comedy grotesques being interviewed this year, but slightly less slick media players as well. Characters that had been built up to near-regulars last year only made the occasional appearance; at a guess the Kraken was released just the once, and after a few cameos in recent years Micallef’s classic (or is that “classic”) character Milo Kerrigan failed to show at all. There was only the occasional mention of Bill Shorten’s zingers. Nobody had a piano dropped on them.
But there were sketches, often so traditionally cornball their old-fashioned nature was part of the joke. There was Cross-Promotion Corner, which gave younger comedians the chance to tell Micallef to fuck off. And unlike The Weekly, a show we’re constantly amazed has the guts to show its face on the same network as Mad as Hell, there were plenty of actual jokes about the news.
When Micallef gave some long-winded spiel about the state of some topical issue, it wasn’t some fingers-crossed-this-goes-viral-nailing-it presentation of opinions everyone at home already had; it was more often than not a joke about how slippery opinions can be, and how most of the time following our views to their logical conclusion takes us a long way from where we want to be. Or it was just funny. Either one will do.
It seems strange to remember it was only a few years ago that it looked like Mad as Hell was being eased out by the ABC bigwigs. There’s been seven seasons over seven years, but after three seasons in little over a year (seasons 3-5 ran from Feb 2014 to April 2015) it was a full year until season six of Mad as Hell – with 34 episodes of The Weekly in between. If you thought it looked like the ABC was grooming a replacement, you weren’t alone.
At the time it seemed almost reasonable. A blunter, less jokey form of news satire was on the rise, and the form rising fastest was the “nailed it” brand of internet-friendly lightweight news with aggro opinions that former newsreader Charlie Pickering claimed to be a specialist in. Mad as Hell‘s more traditional, less overtly opinionated form of comedy – you know, the type that focused on being funny rather than being right-on – was seemingly out of step with the strident times.
Yet The Weekly was shithouse, failing on even the most basic level to meet the pathetically low standards it set for itself. It’s little more now than a time-filling flop, a show unable to gain traction on any level, full of forgettable bits that fail to go viral as the the funny cast members seem increasingly side-lined. Now-ousted cast member Briggs has a running cameo on Get Krack!n, one of the few new ABC comedies with any excitement about it, while Weekly fixture Tom Gleeson hosts a minor game show even the contestants forget is going to air.
And Mad as Hell? It’s more relevant than ever. Where The Weekly increasingly feels out of touch with anything going on outside a shrinking segment of social media, Micallef’s surrealism nails the off-kilter zeitgeist of 2017 in a way that few news comedies – from any corner of the globe – can currently manage. It’s brilliant television that all involved, including the ABC itself, can be rightly proud of: unlike just about everything else looming on the horizon, its (presumed) return in 2018 can’t come quickly enough.
If you’re making a sitcom that’s of a consistently high standard each week, that means you’re doing a good job, right? And Utopia is doing a good job; every episode it makes valid points about how government works (or doesn’t work) and it usually raises a few laughs along the way. So why, after three series, is Utopia leaving us cold?
Problem 1: Utopia is the same every week.
Tony’s got some big project he needs to move on but Jim and Rhonda turn up to make it impossible to do so. Which means major compromises on the project deliverables or a spin campaign about how well it’s going when in fact it’s not even happening, or everyone just sighing and kinda giving up.
Problem 2: All the characters in Utopia are stock characters.
Tony’s the guy in charge who wants to do things. Nat’s his second in command and she also wants to do things. Whereas Jim and Rhonda just turn up and tell them why they can’t do things, like they’re a pair of stuck records. And all the others are either annoying idiots, incompetent, or trying not to appear incompetent by nodding along. If they didn’t have different hair and skin colour it might be hard to tell them apart. Which leads us to…
Problem 3: None of the characters in Utopia have any depth.
What we’re watching every week is a slightly different plot and how some paper-thin characters deal with it. Utopia isn’t one of those shows where each week you get a different plot and because of how things are going in the character’s lives we might see them behave differently according to things they’ve experienced in previous episodes, like, say, in Mad Men or Orange Is the New Black.
This is a show where the reset button has been pressed between episodes, and while that’s worked for lots of comedies from the Warner Brothers cartoons to The Goodies to Get Krackin’, it seems pretty odd, tonally, in the context of a sitcom which in most other respects is in the realistic, single-camera style. Also, it means there’s no chance that any of the plots in the show can be character driven. So, there’s 50% of the show’s opportunities to funny out the window!
Problem 4: Those “modern life is rubbish” subplots.
What’s with how you can’t buy a simple ham sandwich on sliced white bread anymore? And why is coffee so complicated these days? Er, well, last time we had lunch in the CDB, where Utopia is set, you could and it isn’t. So, we didn’t really understand the subplot in episode 6 about how Tony couldn’t get a ham sandwich. We understood the bit in that same episode about how infrastructure was done better in the old days, before privatisation took over and turned everything into rort for property developers, but then, that’s actually true. The idea that office workers are forced to eat a pide or a ban mi baguette or some sushi, instead of a good old simple ham sandwich, for lunch, isn’t. So, they probably shouldn’t have tried to draw parallels there.
Problem 5: Satire on infrastructure isn’t funny in and of itself.
Or to be slightly more accurate, Working Dog haven’t found a way to make a weekly satire on infrastructure funny in and of itself. Plenty of shows have found the funny in infrastructure – Yes Minister, The Games – but then they weren’t always dealing with infrastructure. Sure, Working Dog have got around this flaw with their office obsession of the week sub-plot – a CEO sleepout, a recycling scheme, the new door locks don’t open – something so utterly ridiculous that it prevents everyone at the NBA from doing their jobs – and provides the audience laughs where the infrastructure plots can’t. But it’s still a major flaw in your comedy series if the main point of the show is something that’s never, ever going to be funny. Especially when the B plots start falling flat too. And after three series, they are feeling a bit samey.
So, as much as we hate to kick one of the better Australian sitcoms of recent years into the grass, guys, you might as well leave it there. Don’t worry about giving us a Series 4.