Vale The Hamster Wheel

Yeah, sorry about the delay with this one. But hey, it’s not like The Chaser really need anyone rushing to judgment at this point in their career. Their position at the ABC is about as secure as it gets at this stage of the game: if there hasn’t been a mention of what they’ll be doing in 2012, it’s only because everyone automatically assumes they’ll be back.

This apathy is slightly odd, because The Hamster Wheel was about as big a change in direction for the “Chaser Boys” as one could reasonably expect from a rock-solid ratings machine whose formula brings in the viewers even when the Murdoch press is all but claiming they set fire to an orphanage. For one, they dropped the stunts. For another… umm…

Okay, the differences are subtle but noticeable. The focus is firmly on the media – though not quite as much as you might have expected from the pre-release publicity, as Chaser 101 stuff like fake news and an opening monologue were still there – only they’re explaining its insanity rather than just reveling in it. We’re not the first to point out that in some ways Hamster Wheel is largely an expanded version of the “What Have We Learnt From Current Affairs” segment from The Chaser’s War On Everything, and as that was by far our favourite segment of that show you’ll notice we’re not complaining.

As always with The Chaser, there was also plenty to complain about. Even Shaun Micallef’s Newstopia struggled to make fake news funny so it’s no surprise the fake news here was, as Krusty the Klown put it, “always death”. Politics with Cats was an okay idea that only really deserved a handful of outings rather than a weekly segment, while the Schembri Awards for crap internet news fizzled out and ended up being dropped before the end of the series.

But overall, turning the focus on the media and making fun of its increasingly sleazy and desperate tactics proved to be a winner. Well, more of a winner than anything the superficially similar Gruen factory churned out, largely because Denton’s show is a thinly disguised celebration of the scumbag tactics advertisers / marketers / PR companies use to lie to us and rip us off (every campaign they look at is either “how clever” or “this doesn’t work – as an advertising person, I would instead do this”, where what it needs is the bit where someone goes “the very basis of this industry is bullshit”?) whereas The Chaser seem to hold the media in justifiable contempt for solid comedy results.

So where to from here? While the media’s ability to churn out tripe is endless their strategies for doing so are fairly limited, so a second season of The Hamster Wheel might see them struggling to find new rorts to expose. Not that the ABC would mind; after a decade of solid ratings success it seems safe to say that The Chaser could offer the nation’s broadcaster a show made entirely out of un-filmed outtakes from Packed to the Rafters and be sure of getting at least one season out of it. If they want to bring The Hamster Wheel back in 2012, it’ll be back; if they decide to do a show called The Chicken Shop about the business cards taped to the register of their local fast food outlet, we look forward to eight episodes of poultry-related comedy.

[Rumours that The Chaser’s somewhat sudden return in 2011 – word about the show first surfaced around the middle of the year and it aired in October, whereas most ABC comedy series are usually announced months or years in advance – bumped the long-time-coming Outland back to 2012 remain just rumours. But if that was the case it’d also explain why At Home With Julia only ran for four episodes (the first time a prime-time comedy has had such a short run in many a year) instead of the originally planned six. If it’d been coupled with Outland we would have had the usual situation: the 9.30 Wednesday comedy timeslot featuring two shows at six episodes each across the final twelve weeks of ratings. Instead, as The Hamster Wheel ran for eight weeks, Julia was cut back to just four episodes and Outland was bumped to 2012.]

But what if they don’t come back at all? Chas Licciardello is already lined up to do the non-Chaser Planet America, a show covering the US Presidential election, while no doubt the rest of the team will pop up in various hosting gigs as they’ve done since the dawn of time itself. It’s hard to know whether 2012 will be the year when the team finally does drift apart as it occasionally threatens to do; then again, Chris Taylor and Craig Reucassel hosted drive on TripleJ for a while before returning to the fold and Dominic Knight’s been writing solo novels for a while now. Even the now long-gone and somewhat missed Charles Firth stuck around on the fringes after moving to America.

To be blunt, they just don’t seem like they’re passionate enough to get into the kind of angry artistic spat that tears a comedy team apart. If someone wants to try something different, away they go. If they want to come back, the door’s never fully closed. And by choosing to stick with the ABC instead of jumping ship at the height of their fame the ABC seems to be sticking by them as well, giving them the kind of career security that’s basically unknown in Australian comedy these days.

If there’s a down side to this, it’s that the programs released under the Chaser banner tend to be fairly predictable. The Hamster Wheel / Chaser’s War / Yes We Canberra format is clearly the kind of format they all agree on; meanwhile, the occasional hints of anything startlingly new or different tend to fizzle out to nothing. Not that the ABC wouldn’t be complaining about this consistency – running the same old same old until it gets old is how you get steady ratings. Which just leaves the folks at home who’re looking for something surprising and new…


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