A Useful Insight

Press release(s) time!

Stars come out for new ABC comedy Squinters

Friday, October 13, 2017 — ABC and Screen Australia in association with Create NSW are pleased to announce that filming is underway in Sydney this week on Jungle’s new six-part comedy series Squinters, a series that celebrates the great Aussie ritual that is the everyday work commute.

An extraordinary ensemble cast includes beloved performer/composer Tim Minchin, Academy-Award nominee Jacki Weaver, Miranda Tapsell, Mandy McElhinney, Damon Herriman, Sam Simmons, Andrea Demetriades, Wayne Blair, Christiaan Van Vuuren, Justin Rosniak and Jenna Owen, along with young comic talents Susie Youssef (Rosehaven), Rose Matafeo (NZ’s Funny Girls), Steen Raskopoulos (BBC’s Top Coppers), YouTube sensation John Luc (aka ‘MyChonny’) as well as the UK’s Nyasha Hatendi (Hulu’s Casual).

Created by Trent O’Donnell (The Moodys, No Activity) and Adam Zwar (Wilfred, Lowdown), Squinters tracks the trials and tribulations of five carloads of travelers in peak hour morning transit and again on their drive home to find out how the workday turned out.

Our commuters include: a dispatch driver hoping to win the woman of his dreams by carpooling her to work; a single mum keen to avoid her teen daughter making the same mistakes in love, while juggling a new romance of her own; a clueless ex-school bully hitching a ride with the guy he tormented; best girlfriends whose friendship is tested when one becomes the other’s unlikely boss; and a newly ‘out’, middle-aged man grappling with both possible redundancy and a recalcitrant dog.

Squinters’ behind the scenes creative team is also compelling.  Head director Trent O’Donnell leads an ensemble directing team including Kate McCartney (Get Krack!n, The Katering Show), Amanda Brotchie (Girl Boss (US), Picnic at Hanging Rock), Van Vuuren Bros. (Bondi Hipsters, Soul Mates) and alumnus of Jungle‘s gender equity initiative Operation Sheena, Cate Stewart (ABC Fresh Blood pilot The Record). Adam Zwar leads a diverse writing team including playwright Lally Katz, Sarah Scheller (The Letdown), Adele Vuko (Skitbox), Leon Ford and newcomer Ben Crisp.

Squinters will shoot in October in Sydney and Los Angeles, and air on ABC in 2018.

Okay, it’s kind of obvious why we ran that one. This one requires a bit more explanation:

Jennifer Byrne says goodbye to ABC

Thursday, October 12, 2017 — Jennifer Byrne, host of ABC’s The Book Club, will step aside from her long-running role after The Book Club’sChristmas Special which goes to air on 19 December, 2017.

Jennifer says, “What a joy these past 11 years have been. And what a privilege to share my love of books with a wide, loyal audience on the national broadcaster. You don’t get better jobs – or better co-conspirators than Jason and Marieke, who’ve been with me from the start. We’ve had huge fun, tangled with some brilliant minds (and books), and read like threshing machines.

“For me it’s now time for a break, both to explore what might come next and remember what it’s like to read for pleasure alone. I’m proud we’ve run so long and strong. International authors were often astonished – and envious – that a show like ours existed, let alone endured. Thanks to the ABC which backed us, to the publishing industry which embraced us – and deepest thanks to the readers who travelled with us. I’ve loved the journey more than I can say.”

Jennifer and fellow book lovers Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger have been the go-to team for book-lovers for over a decade. Born out of My Favourite Book in 2004, a 90-minute Sunday night special that reached over a million viewers, First Tuesday Book Club established itself in 2006, as a reliable guide to the best in books, reading and smart conversation.

Attracting giants of the Australian and international literary scene to both The Book Club and Jennifer Byrne Presents, guests have included JK Rowling, Helen Garner, Bill Bryson, Paula Hawkins, Jeanette Winterson, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Alan Cumming, Richard E Grant, Junot Diaz, Peter Carey, Michael Palin, Michael Robotham, Di Morrissey, Toni Jordan, Will Self and Jon Ronson, to name a few.

A well-credentialed Jennifer Byrne was the perfect choice to host the new show when it began: not only is she an avid reader, but she had previously worked as Publishing Director at Reed Books. Having trained as a print journalist – she was at one-time Assistant Editor at The Age’s Monthly Review – Jennifer moved on to television, where she became a Logie-winning television reporter for the Sunday program and spent seven years travelling the world for 60 Minutes. She then went on to present ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent.

David Anderson, ABC Director of Television says, “For 11 years Jennifer Byrne has been entertaining book lovers with her erudite mix of guests; heartily arguing over new releases, disputing the classics, grappling with the best summer reads, and managing to do it all with a healthy dose of laughter, affection and insight.

“We will be sad to see The Book Club go, but understand Jennifer’s decision and thank Jennifer, Marieke and Jason for the hours of reading, thinking, and talking they have shared with our audiences.”

There’s often a lot of fun things you can find out from press releases if you’re willing to read between the lines a little. Bear in mind that these are official announcements, not some rushed interview or disgruntled loner mouthing off: press releases are where the ABC gets to put out the exact version of the story they want to tell.

So, for example, it’s interesting that while the press release announcing a new ABC comedy mentions both “gender equity” and “diverse”, it doesn’t actually contain the word “funny”. Or, on close inspection, anything at all to suggest it’s meant to be funny aside from an initial description of it as “a comedy series”.

“Celebrates the great Aussie ritual that is the everyday work commute” – doesn’t mean funny. “Squinters tracks the trials and tribulations of five carloads of travelers” – doesn’t mean funny. Nowhere in this release is there any suggestion that they are setting out to make a show that’ll be funny. How hard is it to add “hilarious” to a sentence? It’s a press release for a comedy that’s more interested in telling the reader the production team tick all the diversity boxes than it is claiming it’ll be funny. And it’s still made by Trent O’Donnell and Adam Zwar so c’mon guys, who are you trying to fool? It’s the same old white males in charge yet again.

Let’s look at the second press release. Notice anything a little… unusual about it? Here’s a clue: what exactly is it meant to be announcing? Because while it starts out letting us know that Jennifer Byrne is stepping aside from her role as Book Show host, buried right at the very end in a quote from someone else is the news that The Book Show itself isn’t coming back. It’s like she announced she was leaving, ABC management all crowded around to say goodbye and wave her off, and then an hour or so later realised it wasn’t obvious to everyone that without her there wouldn’t be a show.

Again, this is somewhat revealing, and not just because it was never The Book Show with Jennifer Byrne in the same way as, say, The Weekly With Charlie Pickering or Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell. Those shows couldn’t go on without their hosts: if they were to continue, they’d have to be very different programs. The Book Show, on the other hand, doesn’t need Byrne to host: anyone could sit in the center chair and babble on about a bunch of books that even people who read don’t give a shit about. It is in no way obvious or logical that having her leave the show means the end of the show – unless you’re management at the ABC.

Taken together, these press releases tell us that the ABC isn’t really all that interested in trying to sell the actual programs they put to air. As far as they’re concerned, who cares if a comedy is funny? Who even cares if a show is going to air or not? They’re in the business of promoting people – of creating brand names that you, the audience, will flock to.

(at this point we’d like to point in the general direction of Susie Youssef, who’s gone from Rosehaven to Screen Time to Squinters on the ABC in the space of barely a year – she’ll be the next Luke McGregor in no time)

And generally speaking, there’s nothing at all wrong with this approach. Television is, to a large extent, about personalities, and the ABC’s role is to provide an alternative to the mostly white, mostly male faces on the commercial networks. The ABC most definitely should be promoting a diverse range of faces on our television screens: if they don’t, who will?

Unfortunately, basing your comedy output on the idea that people tune in for personalities you’ve intentionally manufactured in some kind of publicity workshop is a pretty shithouse way of going about things. The ABC should be encouraging diversity by giving people who aren’t usually heard the chance to be funny: there’s a good reason why Get Krack!n is one of the funniest, sharpest comedies on the ABC this year, and it’s not because it comes from two middle-aged white men. The way to create comedy personalities is by giving funny people chances to be funny, not making them panelists on painful gab-fests nobody wants to see while the same old guys churn out shows nobody gives a shit about.

Anyone with half a brain knows that actually being diverse – and not just talking it up while handing yet another show over to the same two guys who’ve made, oh, The Moodys, No Activity, Wilfred, Lowdown, six separate series of Agony, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, Here Come the Habibs, Laid,The Letdown, The Urban Monkey and – and this is a pretty big get out of jail free card, let’s be honest – Review with Myles Barlow – is how you get good comedy anyway. The best comedy works because its point-of-view is original and surprising, and its insights are fresh and new. No prizes for guessing which group is more likely to see things in a fresh and relevant way in 2017.

But on the basis of their own press releases, the ABC doesn’t give a shit about being funny. The ABC cares about personalities – people someone at the ABC has decided will resonate with audiences so they get all the attention and promotion to turn them into the kind of people who get mentioned in press releases. And what exactly is the basis for deciding someone gets to be a personality?

Answers on the back of a postcard, please.


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  • sven says:

    That ‘Squinters’ info is bizarre. Internationally renowned stars, with an LA shoot for good measure. Presumably, to film people in cars driving to and from work. Do we see them getting into and out of the car – just to mix it up with some action…
    You could do that with a few actors playing the various roles even. But for 8 x 27min episodes ? That is positively Beckettian. They will plough the drama angle no doubt to augment those wacky, awkward situations.
    And what are the ‘ensemble directing team’ going to do ? ‘Let’s shoot the interiors of the car differently this time gang. Go with me…’
    And nothing like a bit of corporate culture at the abc. You are not selling a product, you are selling a brand (personalities).

  • Yep says:

    I know we’re all thinking it, but ‘Squinters’ sounds like that show ‘Going Home’.

    …What do you mean, know one was thinking that?

    What do you mean, no one remembers ‘Going Home’ – a partially improvised half-hour dramedy thing about a handful of commuters on a train that ran on SBS for several months in 2000?

    What do you mean this fake rhetorical question gimmick is getting old?

    From what I recall, ‘Going Home’ repeatedly ran up against the limitations of its format. How much drama can you really play out in a train carriage without it getting stilted as hell? But at least it had the audacity of being boldly experimental, being all written, filmed and screened in one day, and commenting immediately on the real world’s events.

    ‘Squinters’ could be great, who knows? But it does seem troubling that it lacks the only part of the formula (the breakneck immediacy) that seems to have made ‘Going Home’ memorable at all.