You Can’t Spell SBS Without BS

As part of a long-standing policy clearly designed to avoid the Team Tumbleweeds critical blowtorch, SBS has once again released pretty much all of their Australian comedy content during the non-ratings period – and more importantly, during the period when we’re traditionally slaving away putting together the Tumbleweed Awards (out Australia Day! Tell your friends!). Back when it was just Danger 5, we’d let this slide, but two comedy series in the same week? That’s enough to get even us off the couch… uh, away from tabulating votes.

That said, we don’t have a whole lot to say about The Family Law as yet. It pretty much does what it says on the tin: low-key suburban hijinks with a “growing up Chinese in Australia” angle that – on first look at least – is just enough of a spin to prevent it from falling down the Please Like Me smughole. It’d be nice if it figured out who the lead character was – Ben or his mum – though, and the laughs don’t exactly come thick and fast. Lets just say we’re currently still on the fence.

Meanwhile, The Wizards of Aus is pretty much the kind of show that needs no review, because either you’re going to find the idea of trad fantasy wizards doing CGI magic in suburban Australia funny or you’re not. And by that we mean “look, it’s made by a bunch of guys who are good with effects so they can bring all their randomLOL ideas to life, which means we’re more down the Danger 5 end of the pool than, say, Terry Pratchett.”

Basically, it’s a show that gets some things right – the performances are generally strong, which we shouldn’t be surprised by considering “acting” is one of the two things Australian film & television can do (the other is all the technical stuff and hey look – great special effects!) – and does some funny stuff with the core concept (wizards = boat people is the comedy gift that keeps on giving). But it still manages to get the fundamentals wrong, and we’re not just talking about the decision to give an entire episode of a comedy show over to the horror-movie concept of “Baby Bones”.

Two examples, both from episode four: The episode begins with Jack in the wizard realm having a perfectly reasonable argument with a talking hat about how the hat is sorting students into houses at wizard school. Yeah, it’s basically the sorting hat from Harry Potter. Taking a fantasy construct and applying real-world logic to it is a tried and true comedy method – we’re going to say Mad Magazine invented it, though they almost certainly didn’t – and showing up the logical flaws in a story (is it really such a good idea to put all the evil students in Evil House?) is almost always funny.

The problem here is that it’s 2016 and your show has three minutes of jokes about a concept from the first Harry Potter book. They’re not bad jokes; they’re just not new jokes. People have been making jokes about the Sorting Hat for a decade, and then they stopped because the Harry Potter movies finished. These days it’s a one-liner at best (“sorting hat, stop sorting all the evil students into evil house!”); sometimes even good material has to be retired.

[this kind of ties into another problem: where you could make jokes about generic “wizards” anywhere from the 70s until maybe 2004, since the Lord of the Rings movies hit big Fantasy has become, for wont of a better term, a “live genre”. It’s not just Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons any more (well, it never was if you were reading Fantasy books, but who reads books?) – circa 2016 “fantasy” currently leans more towards the genre deconstruction of Game of Thrones and while there are magic-users there they’re not really cliched wizards. So this show is slightly behind the eightball, making fun as it is of a genre – Fantasy Wizards – that is both slightly out-of-date yet not so old there’s nostalgia value in it. Put more simply, it’s like making a show sending up reality television where a lot of your jokes are about Big Brother.)

Slightly further in we get a campaign ad for Mark Mitchell’s evil anti-wizard politician Senator Quinn. A lot of his appeals to patriotism are spot-on and pretty funny (throwing the Beaconsfield Miners in there got a genuine laugh), and you can’t go wrong with a line like “Stop the Cloaks”. But there’s also a lot of sub-Tim & Eric stuttering visuals in there, plus a bunch of wacky images – would any politician ever air a commercial where they burst out of an egg freshly dropped from an emu’s bum? – which actively undercut the joke it seems they’re trying to make.

Quinn is a race-baiting politician opposed to wizards coming to Melbourne and messing up the place with their crazy magic and flaming skulls and portal powers and whatnot; why would his commercial be full of surreal visuals? “Because the show’s creators thought they’d be funny” is the obvious answer. But he’s the bad guy? The person in opposition to the wizards because of his conservative values? Coming from him, a crazy surreal ad just doesn’t make sense.

“But randomLOLs dude!” Yeah, okay, look: you’ve already got a big wide arena for your randomLOLs, what with having wizards come to Australia. Their magic powers are where the randomLOLs work: if everyone, wizard or not, in your show is doing random shit, then it’s no longer random shit – it’s just shit. And constantly cutting back to Mitchell’s random lines to hide the transitions as Jack goes door-knocking felt more annoying than anything else.

Maybe there are jokes to be made about how the wizards are the sane ones in a crazy Australia. Maybe there are jokes to be made saying that with the wizards running around doing randomLOL magic the rest of the country has gone nutty in response. But then you have to go and make those jokes – Wizards of Aus is all about juxtaposing nutty magic shit with typical Australian shit, and if you’re going to do that then commercials made by typical (evil) Australians need to look like actual shit political commercials – not some edit-heavy zany clip that stopped being surprising or original back in 2009.

This stuff wouldn’t really matter, except that the juxtaposition between 2016 Australia and zany wizards is where this show’s real potential lies. Fantasy is not new ground for comedy: Bored of the Rings came out forty years ago, Terry Pratchett was a massive best-selling author for twenty years, and Open Slather made a bunch of Game of Thrones sketches. Those jokes about magic and wizards are not breaking any new ground here.

And the wacky special effects? Maybe Double the Fist got away with leaning hard on that stuff for comedy (actually no, they didn’t), but these days creating a real-looking Ghost Rider for an Australian comedy gets you ten seconds and then you’d better come up with something else eye-catching or it’s back to the tennis.

Unless they’ve secretly found a gold mine, SBS doesn’t really have the cash for more than a handful (read: one) local comedy series a year. For the last few years that’s been various wacky shows like Danger 5, and The Wizards of Aus follows firmly in that tradition. But The Family Law feels a lot closer to the kind of show SBS should be making (yes, we know SBS has a long tradition of “edgy” comedy reaching back to South Park and Chappelle’s Show, but SBS is the multicultural network, not the edgy comedy network); it’ll be interesting to see which fork* in the road they take.


*not a chopstick joke

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  • Bernard says:

    I once had a meeting with the SBS comedy development people, and they told me emphatically that they would never commission anything mainstream, like a multi-cam. They deliberately want off-the-wall wacky stuff, especially if it’s cheap to produce.

    That was several years ago. The head of comedy then, Caterina de Nave, sadly died 18 months ago, so maybe there’s someone new at the helm who has a more mainstream vision.

  • Andrew says:

    I’ve quite enjoyed The Family Law and have had a few LOL moments from it, which is not something easily achieved. It does very much have shades of the British sitcom Beautiful People but I think it’s a great move by SBS. I’m not confident that I’ll have the same response to Here Come The Habibs but we’ll just have to wait and see.