Laying Down the Law

You may have noticed we’re three weeks into the second season of The Family Law and we still haven’t managed to review it. But more likely you haven’t: while even high profile Australian television struggles to get attention these days, The Family Law, AKA the only Australian comedy SBS will be broadcasting this year, has barely caused a ripple.

And why should it? As the generally heart-warming, proudly representational and only mildly amusing story of a young Benjamin Law and the wacky antics of his now-divorced Queensland family, it’s the kind of show where describing it as “normal people leading normal lives” is a positive. Take this review from (ugh) Mamamia:

The importance of The Family Law being broadcast on Australian screens cannot be understated. 90 per cent of it’s cast is Asian-Australian. The theme of divorce is front and centre. But more than that, it’s interesting, brilliantly scripted and entertaining.

When The Family Law writers sit down to plot their character’s arcs, motivations and words they have one main mandate. They’ll make you laugh, but only after they’ve punched you in the stomach with sadness.

An important show that’ll punch you in the stomach with sadness – sounds hilarious!

We should probably stress here that we’re not saying The Family Law is a bad show. It’s a bland show, which requires a few more letters. But is that necessarily a bad thing? After all, bland has become the default setting for Australian comedy across the board over the last few years – so much so that we’d suggest that if you wanted to make a comedy that could possibly offend someone either pitch it as a segment on The Footy Show or just give up. Maybe just go straight to giving up.

It wasn’t always this way. There’s a reason why this largely comedy-focused website has a category titled “OUTRAGE”: newspapers and radio going nuts over some supposedly offensive show or another used to be par for the course in Australian comedy. It was all bullshit, of course: while Chris Lilley’s blatant racism was repeatedly glossed over and Hey Hey it’s Saturday‘s blackface horror was dismissed as a bit of fun by News Corp newspapers, they went predictably berserk every time an ABC series threatened to tackle a topic more hard-hitting than “old people are excellent”.

The high water mark of all this was The Chaser’s “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch, which was the increasingly rare combination of a show actually doing something in bad taste while being a show that people were actually watching at the time. Then again, the list of people being outraged included Catherine Deveny, who was later sacked by The Age for making a joke about an underage television personality getting laid at the Logies, so swings and roundabouts there.

Was Australian comedy really all that outrageous? Of course not. Wil Anderson insulting Liberal politicians is about as boringly predictable as comedy gets. But did all this coverage – and let’s stress that almost all of this coverage came as part of News Corp’s forever war on the ABC – make it seem like Australian comedy had some edge to it? Well… maybe. And so the people behind the people who run Australian comedy decided that edge had to go.

Of course, these were and are the same people who were fine with putting shit like this to air just a few years ago so excuse us if we don’t assign the purest of motives to their decision.

It’s taken Maori Television’s full board to yank Jonah from Tonga from its schedule.

The spin-off mockumentary show follows white comedian Chris Lilley as he plays 14-year-old Tongan boy Jonah Takalua.

Lilley, an Australian, insists the show was provocative satire rather than racist comedy.

“Provocative satire” you say. Like caging “rangas” in soccer nets and making them eat dog shit? And this was the kind of comedy that wasn’t outrageous in Australia, so imagine the kind of stuff that did stir up trouble… you know, like the time Shaun Micallef made a joke about making a joke about Weary Dunlop.

Anyway, while it’s safe to say that the specifics of outrage are something of a moving target – we’re all certainly very excited about the comedy of 2030 focusing on the appalling way the people of fifteen years ago openly read blogs on the internet – the general nature of outrage has all but vanished from our televisions as far as comedy is concerned. When they come to make another series of Shock Horror Auntie in 2030, they’re going to have nothing to put to air.

Why this has happened is up for debate; while we’d certainly love to go with evil executives at the ABC stamping out all controversy in an attempt to placate News Corp and their political masters, it’s at least as likely that with the audience for free-to-air television dwindling they’re just too worried about losing any more viewers to risk pissing off anyone. If you want to be outraged, the internet has all the material you need and more: television is now where people go to avoid all that kind of thing.

And so we end up here, with perfectly reasonable and yet perfectly forgettable shows like The Family Law. Are we saying it needs to be hard-hitting and offensive? Obviously not: it’s just not that kind of show. But without someone somewhere doing something even mildly edgy on Australian television, a show like The Family Law just fades into the background along with everything (Offspring? Love Child? The Wrong Girl?) else.

A well-crafted lightweight family sitcom like this one should be a refresher course between more challenging series. When everything on the air is pitched at the same “meh” level – was anyone ever surprised by anything on The Weekly? – then you’re left with a rolling tide of programming that just washes over viewers without once ever being memorable.

Which is a long way of saying we haven’t written much about The Family Law because we can’t remember anything we’d want to say.

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  • Bernard says:

    I’ve pitched heaps of TV comedies to all the networks and independent producers. They deliberately want “meh” comedies. You know why? Because of the advertising. They will all tell you that any outrageous comedy will scare off the advertisers (which in the modern era when every network is teetering on bankruptcy is a bad thing). So there you have it. Look forward to more “meh” comedy. But look on the bright side – for every comedy commissioned, it means one less soap opera commissioned!

  • Urinal Cake says:

    ‘Everybody loves Benjamin’

    It’s one of those shows where, ‘That’s just like us!’ is its appeal. However, unlike Raymond or Modern Family which sometimes had/made jokes that escaped that barrier to be more broadly funny this is sort of happy to sit where it is.

  • Tim says:

    Risk aversion is def an issue, but, there’s also a lot of tv getting made so more opportunities. I don’t think I know you Bernard but if you’ve really pitched ‘all the networks’ with ‘heaps’ of comedy show ideas, (and none of them went anywhere?) then I’d wager they probably weren’t very good pitches and I’d be very surprised and disheartened if you really were told that though they were good, the people you were pitching only wanted meh material.