The trick with parodies is to make sure there’s more going on than just the parody. Those classic Mad Magazine movie spoofs had great art; Get Smart had a whole lot of jokes that had nothing to do with the “spy-fi” craze of the 60s. And the other end of the scale, SBS’s recent action send-up Danger 5 often felt like the writers went home after high-fiving each other for coming with with “Hitler in a High School”. So which side of the line does Maximum Choppage fall?
The set-up is a familiar one: in a lawless town where gangs terrorise the innocent, a lone warrior arrives to set things right. Only this time the lawless town is the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta and the lone warrior is Simon Chan (Lawrence Leung). His friends and family think he’s been off training at martial arts school; in reality he was studying at Marshall’s Art School in Melbourne. Now he only has a week to save his mother, her video store, and himself from a gang of serious badasses and the shady figure (ok, it’s the Mayor, who wants to turn their shopping strip into a car park). Fight!
Leung is a likable lead as the quiet nerd forced into the hero role (and outfit), his two buddies Egg (Dave Eastgate, who you may recall from The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting and Wednesday Night Fever, though he probably hopes you don’t) and Petal (Stephanie Son) are decent sidekicks and the evil gang is, well, evil. Setting a martial arts story in a Sydney suburb is silly enough to get a few cheap laughs early on, and the show is committed enough to its wacky scenario to sell it effectively without going too far into lunacy. The question (and one we can’t really answer based solely on the first episode) is whether these elements are going to be enough to sustain a six-part series.
For some reason, Australian sitcoms are almost always rubbish when it comes to characterisation. Upper Middle Bogan wasn’t a great show, but the fact you could tell the characters apart put it a long way ahead of the pack. So all too often our sitcoms try to make up for this – when your characters are all the same its difficult to get laughs out of their interactions, after all – by going for hilarious over-the-top situations. Which is what’s happening here. And we all know how well most Australian sitcoms end up.
Looking at the synopsis for upcoming episodes (fish fighting? ghost busting?) doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence. Sure, this kind of thing could work, but the whole “this week, another wacky cartoony scenario plays out” deal is one we’ve seen a little too often in Australian sitcoms. Which is a bit of a shame, because the character stuff in episode one is actually pretty reasonable: it doesn’t go too far with Chan’s fake warrior act (having Petal know the truth is a relief), while Petal and Egg are different enough from each other to at least suggest some possible character-based plotlines down the line.
If you’re just doing a one-off sketch, a crazy idea can be enough. But a six part series – that’s three hours of television – can’t just rely on outlandish scenarios to keep people watching. Dropping Leung’s nebbish persona into an action movie set in an unlikely location creates enough comedy contradictions to get this first episode over the line, but unless there’s a few more ingredients added – and not just constantly changing the kind of wacky genre knock-off that takes place each week – this particular dish is going to grow stale fast.