You Gotta Keep ’em Seperated

If you had any doubt at all about what market Ten is going for with their upcoming series Offspring, consider that doubt flushed after the first 90 seconds as our heroine Nina (Asher Keddie, last seen as a topless Blanche in Hawke) a): acts all clumsy in front of a buff and shirtless man, then b): delivers a baby. That’s right guys, out of the pool, tonight is ladies night. Specifically ladies of the “Ally McBeal” variety: ditzy, self-deprecating and yet somehow still lovable and adorable even though out in the real world these are the kind of self-obsessed pains in the arse you’d run a mile from.

Tempting as it might be to only review the first 90 seconds of the latest effort from the producers of The Secret Life of Us – or to instead review the 2009 movie of the same name, which sounds like exactly what Australian television needs going by its imdb synopsisOffspring does deserve serious consideration by what is supposedly a comedy blog. The sitcom is basically dead and buried in this country, and for good or ill this kind of lightweight series – I’d call it a “dramedy”, but these days that pretty much means a sitcom that just doesn’t have any jokes – is what has taken its place.

That’s not to say this is a laugh-fest or anything. Let’s jump ahead another 90 seconds: There’s been one not-really-at-all-amusing squabble between the baby’s parents, at least two close-ups of the not-really newborn infant, Dr Nina leaning against a wall looking satisfied while a voice-over tells us that the magical power of a newborn can make the world seem new, and another hunky guy shows up – though to be fair, he is the show’s regular hunk (Don Havel). And that’s pretty much the balance for the series set: two or three parts soft focus drama to one part soft focus comedy.

Unfortunately, a lot of the “comedy” here seems to involve gimmicks like cutsey writing on the screen (scribbling mathematical diagrams over babies to show they have the right numbers of fingers), voice-overs like a list-making speech that ends with “make time for fantasy about sexy new doctor” and fantasy sequences where a group of families throw their babies to each other to illustrate the deep idea that perhaps some kids might be better off with different parents. It’s enough to make you long for the return of Scrubs. The crap final season.

Gradually the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place: Nina’s dad (John Walters) turns up outside a house sans pants; her older sister (Kat Stewart, whose work on Newstopia doesn’t even rate a mention in the promo material) is a snappy bitch, her younger brother (Richard Davies) is a liar and flirt, and her ex breaks into her house, steals her favourite chair, and blows it up. Hang on a second – he’s blowing up household furniture? Is this meant to be a quirky look at a single gals complicated life or an episode of The Three Stooges? Unfortunately, the rest of the episode rules out a Stooge-fest: even Dad eventually puts on a pair of pants.

Obviously there are no hard and fast rules about comedy. There is a kind of spectrum when it comes to jokes though, with totally generic gags that work no matter who says them (ie, knock-knock jokes) at one end and completely character-specific material that only gets laughs because of who’s saying it at the other. You can have both in a show, but the further you go towards either end the funnier things usually get: ideally you’d get to a stage where just having a character enter a situation is funny (because we know how they’ll react to what’s happening) while everyone’s random observations and smart-arse lines are hilarious no matter who says them.

Problem here is, this kind of show exists in the wishy-washy middle of things: when Nina makes an offhand comment about eating some kind of muesli bar that tastes like “Horse chaff” we’re expected to laugh (or at least smile) because it’s a funny observation and because she’s the kind of ditzy person that would eat something without knowing what it is. Out in the real world though, it’s barely an observation nor is it specific enough to make her character interesting in any way. She’s busy, you say? Gee, so was Stalin.

At least one way to make this moment funny isn’t exactly difficult to spot: have her eating something crazily inappropriate – maybe briefly followed by a spit-take, maybe for an extended period without noticing. Of course, this isn’t that kind of show. But if it’s not that kind of show, why have that kind of set-up and then wimp out? If you want to go for subtle observations and character-based laughs, why not take the time to think of ways to do that that aren’t simply neutering the kind of set-ups and straight lines you’d expect to find in a broad sitcom? And if you want to go down the surreal path – let’s repeat: Nina’s boyfriend steals her favourite chair and makes it explode in the street outside her house – why not go all-out with the strangeness and come up with some stuff that might actually make us laugh?

This kind of program is sold to audiences as classy viewing largely on the back of having a good-looking and well-dressed cast hanging around a string of attractive and carefully-filmed inner-city locations. The actual quality of the writing rarely gets a look-in. As for the idea that perhaps this kind of show should figure out what it’s trying to do and then do it – if it wants to be funny then work hard at being funny and if it wants to be a lightweight look at a single gals life then perhaps the exploding chairs and quirky screen-scribbles should hit the bricks – well, that’s clearly crazy talk because adding some watered down “comedy” to a family drama might pull in a few more viewers. Locally produced television shows these days have to be as many things to as many people as possible: unfortunately, “good” isn’t always one of them.

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