…Aaaannnddd we’re back after our traditional summer break during which, as usual, we’ve recovered from all that slipshod Australian comedy we’ve watched over the past year by slagging it off one last time in our annual awards. Yes, it is a kind of therapy for us. But now it’s time to start the cycle again as we move on to comedy 2015…
Danger 5 is back! In fact it’s been back for five episodes (the first of which aired on 4th January), all set in the glossy, neon-lit, fast food-fuelled world familiar from 1980’s American films and TV shows. Hitler’s still rampaging around the world for some reason, but this time he has his sights set on a bimbo High School student called Holly, who seems to be invulnerable. There are a few subplots as well – Tucker and Claire got married but now she’s dead and he can’t cope, and some of Hitler’s Nazi chums seem to have turned on him – but this is Danger 5, and it’s not really about the plot.
In this show the laughs come mainly from its parodies of 1980’s screen culture and the general ludicrousness of the situation (Nazis and dinosaurs!). Problem is that while the period visual stylings and characters types are pretty much spot on, Danger 5 is constantly substituting “ludicrous situation” for “random”. Too often in Danger 5 something happens that’s totally out of the blue, doesn’t relate to anything that’s happened so far and doesn’t even work in the weird universe of Danger 5, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened. Presumably such moments are there because the writers thought it would be funny, but in a show which is so focused on getting the look and feel right the laughs also need to be grounded in some sort of reality, even if it’s the reality of Danger 5 where Hitler can pop out an Esky at an Australia Day BBQ and start machine-gunning ocker-talking native animals to death.
Shaun Micallef is clearly an influence on the Danger 5 team – he even had a cameo in the second episode as a High School Principal – so let’s take a look at how his work compares. In Mad As Hell there are lots of jokes which arguably are “random”…except they’re not really. Shaun Micallef’s work is full of surrealism, oddness and surprise, yet everything makes a certain sense. Some of the funniest moments in Mad As Hell occur when Micallef isolates something, such as odd behaviour from a politician, and extends it to breaking point via a series of wild leaps of logic. The original thing might be pretty funny, but with each Micallef leap of logic it gets funnier and funnier, building up to, for example, a Tony Abbott election video in the style of the Henry Heng. Meanwhile in Danger 5, they’ll cut to a scene where someone’s suddenly got an animal head. For no reason. LOLZ?!
More generally, Danger 5 could just do with a few more out-and-out laughs. Ones that come from characters and situations rather than moments of sudden weirdness or “Oh yeah, I remember that from the 1980’s. Haha!” Because relying on weird shit and nostalgia will only get you so far in a seven-episode sitcom, you have to have laughs from the situations and characters too.
What I find disappointing is that I actually enjoyed the first series. It was by no means classic comedy – that slipshod quality you rightly point out here was already evident in the first series, but it felt more like a goofy, affectionate riff on the tone and content of cheesy old adventure serials. The actors were all-in, and there was clearly an impressive production team that seemed to be able to do a lot with almost no budget.
So of course the bad guy was Hitler – because this was 1950s comic book logic. Of course the characters were one dimensional stereotypes with poor dubbing, because this thing is steeped in the DNA of Thunderbirds and old Flash Gordon strips. Of course such overblown stories were always resolved with contrived bits of nonsense, but that’s because everything was working on a free-associative patriotic giddiness, where it was about the good guys winning the day, and nasty ol’ Mr Hitler getting away at the last minute. The cartoon reality resets. …What perils lie in store next week?
Again, it was never classic comedy – more a cleverly made YouTube parody writ large – but it was fun, and lovingly made, and aware of the charm of its source material.
But as you say, this second season just seems to have tipped over into full Family Guy we’re-just-citing-this-thing-you-might-remember-because-why-not? mode. There’s no commentary, or even affection for those references themselves.
It seems to have taken all of the cynicism of those eighties action tropes – kill the hot girlfriend; get framed by the government; the hyper-gore violence – but has nothing to actually say about them. Yes those things were popular at one time, but so what?
Instead, awash with leftover schtick from the previous season – the animal heads, the lizard people, and seriously, why IS Hitler still in this at this point? – its less of a genre pastiche and more the random jumble of stickers and clipping you’d find taped up on the inside of someone’s high-school locker.
And while it might look cool to stick Robocop’s head on Farah Fawcett’s body, if it’s not saying anything, and if there’s no character or genre through line, then it risks being meaningless, and almost impossible to find funny once that initial jolt of surprise has swiftly faded.
Rebel Wilson talking about Aus TV and tall poppy syndrome on the Scriptnotes podcast –
This should get you riled up.