Last weekend Sunday Age TV critic Melinda Houston revealed exactly why Woodley has been a bit of a fizzle ratings-wise: “It’s complex and full of thoughtful detail while still able to be thoroughly enjoyed by a six-year old.” While this is true, the problem is that it’s true of the show as a whole, not of the comedy within the show. Put another way, across the eight episodes it rapidly became obvious that the “complex and thoughtful detail” stuff was for grown-ups; the funny man doing silly things was for kids. Grown-ups who want to laugh, enjoy the complex and thoughtful detail while you wait.
Frank Woodley’s not to blame for the way his show was reviewed, but this particular review does highlight the kind of highbrow condescension that this kind of “quality” comedy often attracts. When Houston feels the need to reveal to us that “every episode – and they’re only 30 minutes long” BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY AUSTRALIA HAS A LONG TRADITION OF HOUR-LONG SITCOMS AND TEN MINUTE SITCOMS AND SITCOMS RUNNING PRETTY MUCH HOWEVER THE FUCK LONG THEY FEEL LIKE IT SO SHE’D BETTER LET US KNOW RIGHT NOW THAT THIS PARTICULAR ABC SITCOM IS *ONLY* 30 MINUTES LONG PHEW THANK FUCK OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE OF UNCERTAINTY IS OVER, she’s letting us know that she thinks her readers are complete fucking idiots.
No, wait, she’s letting us know that this is a show for people who don’t normally watch television, because people who normally watch television tend to know how long a sitcom runs for. This isn’t regular television, people: it’s a “quality” comedy, based on applause-gathering pratfalls and mime and clowning… you know, the kind of thing they have in those “quality” comedies that gather dust while everyone’s off watching a woman take a shit in a sink in Bridesmaids. One of us recently had a conversation with a friend who hailed Frank Woodley as “a genuine successor to Jacques Tati”, which is nice and maybe even true but probably not something you’d want to put on a DVD cover in Australia in 2012.
We could – and probably should – go on about the critical reception this show got, because most of the time the critics hailed it as an oasis in the wasteland. Which it wasn’t. It was just a little different from the prime-time norm. When you’re a general-purpose TV critic who’s expected to be up-to-date on the reality television and prime-time dramas that make up most of Australia’s television output, simply being different – and not in a car-crash WTF way – is probably enough to have you hailed as a genius. For everyone else who can pick and choose their viewing, Woodley was a little more problematic.
Let’s be clear here: Woodley was a good series – maybe even on its best days (the circus ep and the funeral ep come to mind) a great one – but it was never going to be a hit. Rather than just being flat-out unfunny, it failed in ways we’re more used to seeing a drama fail: it’s a show where all the elements are polished and every piece works as it should, but the project as a whole never quite manages to take off. It doesn’t do anything fatally wrong… it just doesn’t do enough right.
Frank Woodley is brilliant when it comes to mime and physical comedy but you can have too much of a good thing when that good thing often involves falling over, being hit in the head and pulling a sad face. It’s hard enough to get laughs on television when everything is fair game, and when you actively decide to limit your comedy palette – this was a show to avoid if you wanted snappy one-liners or wordplay – the bar is raised just that little bit higher. We’re not saying it needed gag writers and a laugh track: we are saying a little bit more variety in the comedy on offer would have been nice.
More importantly, the core of the show – Frank the sad man tries to win back justifiably disgruntled ex-wife – too often shaded into what in lesser hands we’d call “the tears of a clown”. Mostly Woodley used it to add depth to the pratfalls, but occasionally – a little too occasionally – it slid into mawkishness. And at the other end, sometimes it got a little creepy. Maybe eight episodes was four too many, as the show only found its sweet spot about 50% of the time.
There were plenty of other minor problems – the old-fashioned feel was half-charming, half silly-in-a-bad-way and the groan-worthy gags needed a few more really smart ones to balance them out – but most of them came from the central idea of making a 21st century comedy for grown-ups that was 80% mime and clowning. It’s simply not a field that’s developed much since… let’s say the 1960s… and four hours worth of it stretched over eight weeks with emotional arcs and realistic characterisation (neither of which Mr Bean particularly bothered with) was always going to be a massive stretch.
Even the great movie clowns tended to set up a basic problem then spin routines out of that, but the episodic structure here meant the story had to be reset each week while Frank’s specific nature didn’t allow him to break out into completely different situations. In contrast, by the limited (he wasn’t flying to the moon or anything) standards of Mr Bean, Bean could be anywhere and be doing anything in one episode then be elsewhere doing something else entirely in the next, while Tati would set up a situation for Monsieur Hulot and build riff after riff on that for an entire film.
Frank was trapped between the two approaches. He was too specific a character to provide the variety of a Mr Bean, and having to start again each week story-wise meant Woodley ended up covering the same ground (and often repeating gags) rather than building up to anything truly amazing. Clowning and mime is not an artform that lends itself to extensive character development, while Woodley refused to let its lead be just a… well, a clown.
Much as it breaks our hearts to say it, in Australia these days comedy is niche programming. Woodley was a niche within that niche. As part of a balanced comedy diet, or even with other stronger comedies around it, it might have been both vital and exciting; in today’s climate “sweet” and “often charming” just aren’t enough.