At Last, The Twentysomething Review

When was the last time the ABC commissioned a sitcom directed at old people? Oh God, was it Mother & Son in the 1980s? Yet here we stand, only midway into 2013, and already we’ve had a pair of sitcoms fired directly at the strongly beating hearts of da yoof: First was Please Like Me, followed by the long-time-a’coming second series of Twentysomething. It’s almost as if the ABC is suddenly worried the kids are thinking about shunting it off into a home.

Historically, sitcoms usually require two elements: comedy characters and a comedic situation. Australian television clearly can’t handle two distinct comedy elements at the one time, so recent shows have placed their emphasis on just one. Please Like Me certainly had a situation –  Josh Thomas realised he was gay, changing his life and that of his chums – but it didn’t features characters that were in any way memorable. Even after watching all six episodes it’s close to impossible to nail-down any of the characters’ without using the word “bland”; insipid yet somehow powerfully sexually attractive man-children may very well exist in the real world, but as the heart of a comedy they’re not exactly side-splitters.

Twentysomething has the reverse problem, which is really much less of a problem because the show as a whole is much better than Please Like Me: it really does have a strong comedy character placed front and center in the form of the very self-centered Jess (Jess Harris). She’s only nearly a complete monster – her interaction with her ex (Hamish Blake) prove that she can make a real connection with someone – but she uses her fake husband / real sidekick Josh (Josh Schmidt) shamelessly (he has just enough air-time to reveal they share a general contempt for humanity, but friend-wise he’s clearly doing most of the heavy lifting) and events in general have to focus on her or she tunes out.

It’s when it comes to finding situations to put her in that Twentysomething struggles. Based on our viewing of the first episode, this second series seems to be repeating the first situation-wise  – that is, Jess and Josh try out a variety of jobs  – but as set-ups go it wasn’t all that great the last time they did it. Changing the location every episode (they started the show with their homecoming then they checked out uni; week two has Jess building site working for her father, Glenn Robbins) doesn’t allow the show to really dig into a setting, and the writing isn’t pointed enough to breathe life into a setting given only a few scenes to work with.

So once again we have a show almost completely reliant on one element. If you don’t find Jess funny, there’s next to nothing else in this show for you. Fortunately for us, we do; your mileage may vary. But while there’s a bunch of semi-regular supporting characters in this series, none of them make much of an impression. Even Josh’s character could almost work if he never spoke at all and was just constantly run over by Jess’ self-obsessions.

Again, Jess is a great comedy character and we laughed a number of times (okay, it was a single digit number, but still) at the skilful way she made everything around her all about her. But one really strong character does not a successful sitcom make, unless it’s a five minute interstitial like Audrey’s Kitchen. Still, the second episode certainly looks promising, in that Robbins should make a decent comic foil for her and putting her on a building site seems like a situation with comic potential. So, you know, fingers crossed.

It’s arguable that a little less of Jess would work a whole lot better. Giving her a cast of equally well-defined supporting characters to play off against would hardly be a bad thing; even sitcoms generally remembered as being built around one character usually had a strong supporting cast for context. But that might have to wait for Harris’ next TV series (yeah, we know, in Australia you get one series and you run it into the ground, but we’re dreamers over here): for now, at least Twentysomething is a sitcom about da yoof that doesn’t portray everyone under 35 as spineless ineffectual sadsacks whose main skill in life is gazing off into the middle distance looking slightly miffed while an awkward pause drags on. And on. And on.


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  • Jimbo says:

    Twentysomething shows flashes of brilliance, a bit like Very Small Business did, but it can’t capitalise on those moments, so therefore comes across as half-baked. The problem is that Josh is supposed to be the other main character, yet suffers from Passive Character Syndrome. He doesn’t want anything or believe in anything or desire anything. There’s no conflict between Jess and Josh – Josh just takes it in the arse from Jess (metaphorically speaking). And as we all know, conflict is what drives comedy. Essentially Twentysomething is a single-character monologue, and try as she might, Jess can’t sustain half an hour of comedy by herself.

    Contrast Twentysomething with Peep Show (my vote for the Best Sitcom Of The Last Ten Years), where you have two young(ish) characters who are joined at the hip in an Odd Couple narrative. Everything that happens is the result of the two main characters wanting different things from each other, yet not being able to deliver. Hey presto, instant conflict and instant comedy. You don’t need plot contrivances when you have two massively comic main characters who antagonize each other constantly.

  • BIlly C says:

    I would be fascinated to know what the iview numbers end up being. A 50,000 debut is low but I don’t think the target market for this show is watching television as it goes to air. I also don’t think the target market has ratings boxes or is bothering to press the button to register their presence.

    Hopefully those numbers will not stop the ABC commissioning shows like this in the future.

  • Sqheyer says:

    I loathe twentysomething, and I never understand this site’s championing of it. It’s just awful, it looks bad, it’s unfunny and I was to smash Jess in the face with a shovel. Whereas Please Like Me I really enjoyed, and it had two main older characters – Josh’s mum and Aunt Peg – who were brilliant and I loved (and I’ll admit I probably would have liked the show even more if it had just focused on the older characters and made the kids an occasional hindrance). Also, I laughed a lot during Please Like Me, which I have never done for twentysomething. I still find it weird that Please Like Me was considered “niche” and shoved to ABC2 when it had two older women in it, and was therefore covering the ABC’s largest demographic, whereas Elegant Gentleman was so boysy and off-putting it should have been shoved to 2 and abandoned.

  • Jimbo says:

    You have to admit, Jess Harris wearing that skimpy cleaning outfit was a sight to behold. Unless you are rampantly gay…in which case Josh Schmidt wearing a skimpy outfit was probably a sight to behold.

    Please Like Me sucked arse bigtime. Refresh our memories – what were the great comic lines delivered by Josh’s mum and Aunt Peg? Or indeed any of the characters?

    Agree with your comment on Elegant Gentleman.

  • simbo says:

    I must admit, I’m struggling to find online any quotable comic lines from either Twentysomething or Please Like me. I don’t know whether this says more about the internet or about the nature of comic writing these days.

  • Cameron Jackson says:

    I think that both Jess and Josh are great characters. I also think that the relationship is not as unbalanced as it appears. Josh enjoys Jess’ manic energy as much as Jess relies upon Josh for pretty much unconditional support.

    I also think that Josh’s brother is a good character and foil.

    But perhaps the main point of the programme is Jess’ complete preparedness to break all social taboos without compunction.