Dog Training

The final episode – you’d have to guess forever – of Wilfred aired earlier this week and hard as it is to admit, I’ll be sad to see it go.  Not all that sad mind you, because that first series was pretty much a textbook example of how to put together a comedy that contains no actual comedy.  But the second series actually managed to cough out a couple of mildly funny episodes, and in today’s comedy climate that’s got to count as a win.

Unfortunately, the few decent episodes I saw – especially the one where Wilfred (Jason Gann) decided he wanted to be a TV star and got himself into a dog food commercial – came at the end of what was, for Australian television, a very long run.  On the one hand, that’s good: at least Wilfred finally found a way to get laughs out of a premise that sounded like it should have been funny but turned out to mostly be fairly grim. Which was clearly the intention (check out the lighting; Kath & Kim it was not): when did we get to a place where trying to make people laugh in a comedy was a bad thing?

On the other hand, it’s not like anyone else in Australian comedy is getting 16 episodes of their own half-hour show to figure out what works. Not to mention the six episodes of that Mark Loves Sharon mockumentary Jason Gann did on Ten, and Zwar’s got Lowdown (written with others, mind you) currently running on Two. That’s at least 50% of the Australian sitcom output over the last two or three years (more if you don’t count pay TV): if you don’t like the Zwar / Gann school of faux-realism, you’re kinda out of luck.

So who picked them to be the future of the Australian sitcom?  Well, they did: they worked hard, they made short films (including the original Wilfred) and a feature (the, uh, feature-length Rats & Cats), and slaved away on both series of The Wedge. They’re one of the few members of the current crop of comedians who have focused on performances rather than panel show appearances and / or radio, and guess what? It’s paid off with actual television careers (even if Gann is over in the US “pursuing opportunities”). Just like it used to back in the old days.

Unfortunately, at the moment they’re the only ones who seem to be doing it. Maybe because it’s hard work, maybe because it involves actually working on comedy that isn’t just cracking jokes about today’s news, and maybe because even after all that hard work you still end up making a sitcom on SBS that hardly anyone gets to see. And when they did, what they saw was a grim, enclosed share-house comedy where (in the first series much more than the second), the fairly harmless Adam was constantly picked on and abused by the other two cast members.

Wilfred could have been the best sitcom made in this country in the last 10 years and it almost certainly wouldn’t have been a smash hit.  SBS just doesn’t get enough viewers. But the first series was so committed to making no concessions to an audience – especially an audience who might have been expecting a laugh – that the fact there even was a second series took a lot of people by surprise.

It’s probably fair to say that only the committed few would have kept on watching series two long enough to realise that they’d fixed some of the show’s bigger problems: episodes began to have plots that were as over the top as the idea of Wilfred himself, Adam’s character stood up to the other two more… look, it still wasn’t a classic, but it was getting better. Much like The Hollowmen, it wasn’t until the end was in sight that it was possible to wish there was more to come.

So while it’s clearly good news that this particular path to fame hasn’t been totally cut off,  it’s a sign that something isn’t quite right that we seem to be seeing more than a few sitcoms that only hit their stride when they’re all but over. Especially considering that they’re coming from people who’ve been making comedy for a long, long time – Zwar and Gann aren’t Working Dog, but they’d made two series of their own, worked on two series of The Wedge, made short films and a movie. That’s equivalent to Shaun Micallef’s career when he was making The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), and Wilfred ain’t no P(r)ogram(me).

Perhaps they’re burnt out on the idea of making people laugh before they get the chance to do it right; perhaps they’re rushing into production on a concept before they’ve figured out exactly what’s supposed to be funny about it. Either way, it’s not a good thing: you can hardly have a TV comedy industry based on telling people “don’t bother watching until the last couple of weeks – that’s when it’ll get really good”. Not that it stopped Seven from trying that approach twice this year with The Bounce and The White Room. And look how well it worked there…

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