Did you hear? It only took the ABC eight months to air their first broad-based sitcom for 2013! You might think we’re being sarcastic; feel free to go back and look over all those years when the ABC didn’t manage to air even one sitcom that could be charitably described as having “broad-based appeal”. The ABC’s always had a remit when it comes to airing the comedy that the commercial networks won’t: it’s just taken them twenty years to realise that pretty much means ALL comedy – including stuff that might actually rate well.
It’s also a sign of the diminished status of Australian comedy that when the ABC was screening dramas like The Slap on Thursday nights at 8.30pm there was a low but steady grumble along the lines of “why is the national broadcaster throwing away quality drama on a Thursday night”. Yet not a word has been spoken up now that they’re “throwing away” quality comedy on that very same night. Though considering the pig’s breakfast the ABC have made of their once-proud Wednesday night comedy line-up, perhaps silence is golden in this case.
General bitchiness aside for the moment, Upper Middle Bogan gets points merely for being an increasingly rare attempt to create a sitcom aimed at a wide audience – so wide, in fact, that the very concept advertises the fact that it’s meant to contain pretty much something for everyone: Bess (Annie Maynard) is a well-off doctor with twin 13 year-olds at private school and an architect (Patrick Brammall) for a husband. Then she discovers her snooty mum (Robyn Nevin) is not, in fact her mother: she was adopted, and her real parents are Wayne (Glenn Robbins) and Julie (Robyn Malcolm), the rough-around-the-edges heads of a western suburbs drag racing dynasty. Hilarity ensues? Well, not quite.
First, some background: this is the latest effort from Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler’s company Gristmill. If you remember their earlier series The Librarians you’ve probably got a bit of an idea of what to expect here. On the whole we liked The Librarians: you might want to keep that in mind as you read on.
While the sense of humour on display here is similar, the approach here is much gentler than the cringe comedy and broad strokes of The Librarians: yes, there are at least two exceedingly stupid young male characters, and Bess’s jittery nature is more than slightly reminiscent of Butler’s character in The Librarians (as is Maynard’s performance). But there’s a lot less laughing at the characters here and the second half of episode one was basically a lightweight drama right up to the point where both families finally met up.
Drama in this country has been moving in on comedy’s turf for a while now and this feels like a continuation of that trend from the comedy side – or just good old-fashioned character-based comedy, where the first few episodes struggle a little until everyone beds in. Based on the first episode it could go either way; there’s enough overall quality on display – seriously, at least all the characters didn’t sound exactly the same, which isn’t something you can say about a lot of ABC sitcoms over the last few years – to keep us coming back.
Slightly shakier was the more obviously trying-to-be comedic Peter Helliar-scripted It’s a Date, which each week follows two couples on, you guessed it, a date. It’s a solid concept and the cast across the eight weeks is great, but going by tonight’s episode Helliar (who co-writes every episode) has learnt a grand total of bugger-all from the fizzle of his last stab at rom-com, the forgettable feature film I Love You Too.
Whether it’s confusing set-ups, strippers, people being urinated on, or the clunky “theme” (tonight’s was “When Should You Give Up On A Date”, which turned out to be totally irrelevant to both stories), the whole thing felt a definite step down in quality after Upper Middle Bogan. Sadly, it’s also the one show out of the two that’s clearly trying to be broadly funny right out the gate: meanwhile, how many billion people did the final episode of Offspring rate? Yeah, crying is the future of comedy. So now we can probably look forward to at least one moronic “think piece” on how the two Thursday night shows’ relative merits are a sign that Australians just aren’t interested in “ha-ha funny” any more.
Which is crap: people aren’t interested in proven dud Peter Helliar’s ham-fisted attempts to cover-up his inability to write characters by piling on increasingly forced “surprise twists” and stupid situations. It’s not quite a total loss: at least the Helliar / Lisa McCune story had an explanation for their painfully crap antics built in – it was an explanation that didn’t really make all that much sense, but at least it was there.
The only upside so far with It’s a Date is that at least the generally classy cast and lack of ongoing storylines means each episode could, in theory at least, be better than the last; here’s hoping they didn’t lead with the strongest, because this is a date we’re already willing to break. And who knows? Maybe by week four Upper Middle Bogan will be busting out the hilarity and it’ll actually work because we’re invested in the characters and the laughs are coming from what we now know about them. It won’t make It’s a Date any funnier, but at least it’ll be a sign that comedy itself isn’t dead.