Long Overdue

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”?

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  • Tony Wilson says:

    I’m also loving it. The tuna has become a character. And ‘Oils Aint Oils’ makes me laugh every time. Unless that ‘The Oils Aint Oils’. Haven’t seen how that story line played itself out.

    McManus speaking dogs bollocks in that column.

  • Casey Hribar says:

    I don’t actually understand why you think someone’s opinion of comedy has to be utterly polarised. I enjoy both cringe and laugh out loud comedy, and that’s not even to say that you can always establish a distinction between the two in the overall style of a text overall when they use both devices. I’d hate to be limited in my appreciation of one over the other.

  • billy c says:

    25 The Librarians ABC1 534,000 135,000 160,000 103,000 75,000 62,000
    24 The Librarians ABC1 572,000 155,000 185,000 96,000 67,000 69,000
    20 The Librarians ABC1 582,000 140,000 169,000 110,000 86,000 76,000
    25 The Librarians ABC1 595,000 152,000 214,000 78,000 64,000 87,000
    26 The Librarians ABC1 541,000 145,000 175,000 87,000 72,000 63,000
    15 The Librarians ABC1 726,000 210,000 238,000 129,000 88,000 62,000

    I think the numbers speak in this case. Two weeks ago more people were watching the I.T Crowd at 9pm. That’s almost unheard of. It’s lost almost 200,000 viewers since it started.
    I thought the first ep was really good and I thought the first tow season were extremely average. Perhaps it’s a case of those who liked the first two seasons don’t like this one and everyone else made up their mind about along time ago. Having said that I commend the ABC for giving it a shot. They’ll no doubt make something brilliant one day. I don’t think there’s many examples in Britain of anyone having a smash hit at their first try.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Billy, you’ve come to the wrong place if you think audience numbers prove much of anything. We’re interested in the quality of the show, not the viewers it pulls in. After all, the Hey Hey specials last year rated in the millions – and yet, we didn’t seem to find them the best Australian television comedy of recent times. (that said, your theory about people who liked the first two series not liking this one sounds like it might be on the money).

    Casey, it’s not that we think comedy is polarized, or that anyone’s opinion has to be – we just find it difficult to laugh when we’re cringing. If you like cringing, fine, but as far as we’re concerned it tends to kill the comedy in a comedy stone dead. If that makes us “limited in our appreciation of one over the other” – and we are fans of shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, and others that do what gets loosely tagged “cringe comedy” right – so be it.

    Because as far as we’re concerned, most of the other is shite.

  • Casey Hribar says:

    I’m sorry 13 schoolyards, I didn’t mean to sound like I was being argumentative or polarising over the issue. I’m glad there’s some scope on both sides or at least scope for shows that have been considered cringe to be included in Laugh Out Loud comedy. Sorry if that statement sounded like a blanket insult or anything, it wasn’t intended that way. I just thought that Curb and Larry Sanders and even Frontline have moments that are cringe comedy and even those were being dismissed. I agree that cringing really isn’t a mechanism for comedy, it’s just uncomfortableness, and it doesn’t even seem to be intended to make you laugh, or at least I don’t understand how people can laugh at something that makes one feel awkward viewing it. Besides the most obvious example, what do you consider purely just cringe comedy that is purely geared towards cringe rather than a bit of a mixture of both. Do you think that most comedy that’s been labelled cringe but is actually more laugh out loud – such as the examples discussed so far – are just completely miscategorised? I’m really not that sure what specifically fits cringe if there’s a leniency one way or the other or there’s been a false or misleading tag added to the genre of a show within the comedy genre itself now. Sorry, now I’m being polarising myself! But to be honest, I’m curious for some real examples of purely bad cringe comedy now. Sorry if this is a trivial request, I’m just curious where the line falls I guess. Thank you for your response, it certainly is food for thought.