Why, isn’t that UK comedy stalwart Mark Heap in the opening scene of new ABC comedy A Moody Christmas? Why yes it is. Will we ever see him again? Probably not. Still, having him in the background of one scene is better than nothing at all, and he does provide a signpost to the path that this particular ABC take on UK-style “family” comedy will be heading down: actors doing comedy rather than stand-up comedians doing acting.
Unfortunately, as those of you with eyes to see are already painfully aware, Australia is not home to a vast array of first-rate comedy actors. So what quickly develops here is a sitcom – there’s a situation (Christmas), there’s comedy (of a sort), it’s a sitcom – where we get a fun bunch of traditional comedy character who aren’t really given much of a spark by the cast. We’re not saying they’re bad actors or anything; they’re just not hilarious actors, and when you’re playing types like “the sleazy uncle”, “the boring uncle”, “the smarmy go-getter cousin” and “the dodgy small businessman brother (remember the brother Adam Scott played in the movie Step Brothers? He’s basically that guy)”, it really really helps if you can bring something to the party.
A party is what the show is about, by the way: it’s Christmas, and photographer Dan Moody (Ian Meadows) is back from the UK without his girlfriend, who dumped him at the airport in front of Mark Heap. Time for a family Christmas! Yes, it’s a bunch of old fights re-heated, petty rivalries, annoying relatives crapping on, bad food, hot weather, and so on. We’ve all been there, and the show’s big strength is that it taps into a situation that’s pretty much universal. Well, is it until the bit where they dress up as Santa to break into a garage to steal back a ride-on mower.
Much as writing is usually the weak link in Australian drama – and this is basically a mild drama with jokes, rather than an US-style joke-onslaught sitcom – here the writing is actually pretty good. The characters, while generic, are well observed, the bitchy family relationships feel spot-on, and the first episode ticks along pretty well as a whole. There’s nothing at all stand-out here, but it doesn’t fall in a heap either. Thumbs up there to Phil Lloyd and Trent O’Donnell, of Review with Myles Barlow fame.
Alarm bells start a-ringing when it turns out that, years ago when he was a cadet, Dan took a famous photo where a woman died in a fire – seems public opinion (and the opinion of much of his family) is that trying to save her probably would have been a better option than taking a photo. But Cora (Jane Harber) gives him the “OMG sympathy” look and biff bam pow we’re in the blandly predictable world of dramedy yet again. It’s a throw away moment, sure, but it’s a forced one and this just hasn’t been funny enough – or delved anywhere near deeply into any of its characters – to be trying to get away with it so early in the piece.
Let’s be clear here: we watch comedies to laugh. We don’t watch comedies for romantic relationships. So the seemingly endless cutaways to Cora looking on sympathetically (or horrified) as the Moody family get on Dan’s nerves and/or treat him like crap add very little to proceedings as far as we’re concerned. Your milage may vary, but c’mon: “will-they-or-won’t-they” is fine as a minor subplot in a serial drama or a long-running comedy, but in a six-part half hour comedy series it really feels like they aren’t confident that the comedy alone will keep people watching. Which, to be fair, is probably fair enough.
This may pick up in future weeks, but the premise – we check back in with the Moody’s every Christmas – doesn’t give us a lot of hope there. It’s a good premise, but it really needs much stronger characters to work if it’s going to keep approaching things realistically. Christmas gatherings are a time when people fall into a rut, playing a role within their family, and from the first episode none of the one-note characters (the sister: I’m pregnant! Next week: we have to have sex so I can get pregnant!) or the roles they play are going to sustain six weeks of comedy unless they seriously go off the rails.
In the end this is more “quality” than “funny”. The laugh-out-loud moments are pretty much non-existent but if The (UK) Office has taught us anything it’s that if you can’t get laughs, moments of recognition are almost as good. Sure, mostly what you’re going to recognise here is a local take on one of those bland “family” UK sitcoms the ABC are always importing to zero interest from the viewing public. Or maybe just another Australian sitcom that isn’t really very funny. But who watches comedy for the laughs these days?