When the first series of The Librarians arrived on the ABC back towards the end of 2007, it was pretty much the first ray of sunshine after a long, long winter for Australian comedy. Well, it had been a long winter if you weren’t a fan of the increasingly prank-based Chaser’s War on Everything, the panel-based drivel of The Glasshouse, and Chris Lilley’s strident efforts to turn the very form of comedy itself into a way to give himself as much screentime as possible. For what felt like years Australian television comedy had laboured under the twin cinderblocks of half-arsed “political comment” and increasingly self-indulgent variations on The Office’s David Brent.
It’s important to linger a little longer on Summer Heights High. Thanks to it’s ratings success, Chris Lilley had been crowned Australia’s King of Komedy for his ability to put on a range of annoying accents and play a variety of slight variations on a character best described as “a self-obsessed tool”. Australian scripted comedy had been re-defined, thanks largely to the fact that no-one but Lilley was actually making any of it, as little more than a collection of catchphrase-quoting, painful to watch prats we were supposedly meant to be laughing at… only Lilley’s clear love for his cast of lovable misfits meant that the laughs were constantly being undercut. Not that there were a lot of laughs in the first place, but with Jonah, Ja’ime and Mr G veering wildly between complete prats and misunderstood misfits, the few smirks going were undersold at best.
What made The Librarians a clear improvement on Lilley’s work was the fact that, despite having a Lilley-esque central character in the form of neurotic Head Librarian Frances O’Brien (Robyn Butler), creators Butler and Wayne Hope made room for a solid supporting cast (including Roz Hammond and Bob Franklin) and allowed them to share in the laughs by being good old-fashioned, two dimensional comedy characters. It wasn’t fully successful: there was still a heavy reliance on Frances “shocking” comments that weren’t really all that funny. But it was still streets ahead of much of what passes for comedy, sitcom or not, in this country.
Having stumbled across an advance copy of the first four episodes in a bin outside The Age offices, it’s safe to reveal that for the most part everything that worked in the first series has returned. Well, Josh Lawson isn’t back and Kim Gyngell’s role has shrunk to a cameo, but there’s more of Wayne Hope as Frances’ clueless, seemingly endlessly masturbating husband to make up for their loss. Frances is still saying the wrong thing inbetween stressing out and sucking up, while the rest of the Middleton Library staff continue to blunder along – except for children’s librarian and Frances’ former best friend Christine (Hammond), who’s now pregnant and so doing even less work than before.
All seemingly good news there. But the trend in Australian comedy since 2007 has been moving away from “subtle” (read: unfunny), supposedly confronting, barely smirk-raising characters and towards broad gags: while The Chaser failed to spot the mood shift and went from comedy heroes to pariahs and Kyle and Jackie O’s pranks got them yanked off air, Shaun Micallef’s wacky surrealist antics have made him the reigning king of Network Ten and Seven’s so confident that the lightweight silliness of Thursday night’s TV Burp will work that they’re bumping it up to 8.30pm from next week.
Against this backdrop, and despite the uniformly excellent performances and well-crafted scripts, The Librarians feels awfully of it’s time – and that time has passed. Unlike last year’s Very Small Business, which managed to feel like a good old-fashioned comedy thanks to, well, being funny, The Librarians (at least in it’s first four episodes) remains part of a trend towards social painfulness in comedy that has firmly gone out of style. That’s not to say that it’s without merit, or that it’s not very funny in parts – Bob Franklin’s mustache alone is worth a chuckle or two, and the running subplot about Frances’ hellion daughter works well too.
But the multicultural tensions and passive aggressive bitchiness that make up large chunks of most episodes are territory that have been mined a little too deeply in recent years. It’s difficult to know whether Hope and Butler’s Gristmill production company are simply of their time – Tales From the Golf, their series of shorts for SBS, was also very big on social awkwardness – or if they were just giving the customer what they wanted in the wake of Lilley’s triumph. Hopefully it’s the latter: there’s still a lot more promise on display in one episode of The Librarians than, say, every second of footage featuring Mark Loves Sharon’s Mark Wary. And Australian comedy can’t afford to throw talent onto the discard pile just yet.