A Triumph of Towering Unambition

Remember when we used to slag off other critics for lazily praising clearly substandard Australian comedy? Yeah, it’s been a while. But thanks to the local newsagent mistakenly throwing a copy of Saturday’s Fairfax rag over one of the team’s front fence, it’s back!

Among the many truisms of television is that the best results often come from relatively unambitious ideas.

The new ABC comedy Squinters (Wednesdays, ABC1, 9pm) might seem at first glance to be a reasonably unobtrusive piece of work, a sort of collation of vignettes glimpsing into the vehicles crammed on a long commute across Sydney; the name drawn from the fact that at some point most must squint into the afternoon sun. But while the story framework of Squinters may be relatively simple – the sexual, social and professional minutiae of the lives of the occupants of the various cars we visit – the results are stunning.

Well, we can’t really argue with “stunning”. And to be fair, starting off a review of Squinters by basically saying “the best television is the stuff that doesn’t aim high” does give us a pretty good guide to where this is heading. But then we get to the bit that made us do a surprisingly professional spit-take:

This is unequivocally one of the funniest comedies of the year.

Two points:

1): It’s Squinters.

2): It’s February.

Look, when it comes to Australian television comedy often we too feel like just calling it and going home. But to come out and say the very first new Australian scripted sitcom of the year is also the funniest of the year really does feel like a television critic saying “ok, there, that’s the best, now leave me the fuck alone and stop making me watch this shit.”

And this vague feeling that we’re reading a review written by someone who’s heart really isn’t in it isn’t helped by the way the review is padded out by listing pretty much every single major creative member of the cast and crew:

The car occupants themselves – sparring Paul (Tim Minchin) and Romi (Andrea Demetriades), newly coupled Gary (Wayne Blair) and Bridget (Mandy McElhinney), and daughter Mia (Jenna Owen), lads Macca (Justin Rosniak) and Ned (Steen Raskopoulos) and others – are a crisp tapestry of personalities, foibles and awkward nuance…

Not to take anything from the show’s writers – co-creator Adam Zwar, Lally Katz, Sarah Scheller, Adele Vuko, Leon Ford and Ben Crisp – but Squinters saves some of its most beautiful blooms for in front of the camera. Damon Herriman’s Miles, Justin Rosniak’s Macca and Simoni and Talia, played by Susie Youssef and Rose Matafeo, all shine…

Due credit to its directors, too: co-creator Trent O’Donnell, Kate McCartney, Amanda Brotchie, Christiaan Van Vuuren and Cate Stewart…

It’s also a little strange (or a sign of a reviewer who’s no longer quite as passionate about television as they were a decade ago) that while this review mentions three other shows – 90’s mainstay French & Saunders, 2001’s Going Home, and an extremely obscure cut, 2009’s The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote – no mention is made of the show’s most obvious predecessor, No Activity. You know, the show made by the same producers a few years ago? It’s also about people sitting in cars talking shit?

But this is the bit that really stuck with us:

The show’s best is perhaps Lukas (Sam Simmons) and his mum Audrey (Jacki Weaver), whose uncomfortably relationship and awkward banter has a strange echo of the French and Saunders sketch which gave rise to Absolutely Fabulous.

If Lukas and Audrey don’t have a spin-off series in them, I’d be surprised. Simmons has magnificent nuance, evidenced by one of his early works, The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote, back in 2009. Simmons (and Murray Foote, frankly) is long overdue a larger television canvas on which to paint. Coupling him with Weaver, who brings the sort of richness of mischief that Joanna Lumley tapped when she revelled in wrinkling up as the older, future Patsy, is simply brilliant casting. Together Simmons and Weaver are electric, in a way that is excruciating. It isn’t a rhythm that works in all styles of comedy but here the discomfort crackles.

Simmons and Weaver appear together in Simmons’ first segment in the first episode. In his second segment, she’s not there. She’s not there in the second episode at all. Or the third. In fact, according to IMDB – because we’re watching the series as it airs, which is the point of running a newspaper review – she only appears again in the fourth episode. At a guess, out of Simmons’ 12 three-minute segments on this six episode show maybe two and a maximum of three feature the “brilliant casting” of the “electric” duo that comprise “the show’s best”.

Basically, we’re being told that the best bit of one of the “funniest comedies of the year” was in the first half of the first episode. Wow, that’s pretty convenient for time-strapped viewers.

(also, considering the events of episode six, that spin-off series? Not happening)

There’s also this:

There is no doubt that the ABC’s comedy slate has been shaped into one of the broadcaster’s strongest assets

But we think we’ve pointed out enough errors for one day.

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  • Bernard says:

    “Not to take anything from the show’s writers – co-creator Adam Zwar, Lally Katz, Sarah Scheller, Adele Vuko, Leon Ford and Ben Crisp…”

    I looked up all those names on IMDB. Apart from Adam Zwar, none of those people has a background in comedy or writing comedy. Maybe that explains the jaw-dropping lack of humour in the whole thing.

  • Yep says:

    What strikes me most about this series – as everyone else has already said – is its staggering lack of ambition.

    Like Adam Zwar’s other relatively recent projects (the Agony Aunts/Uncles/Modern Life/General Bitching About Daily Minutia series’), Squinters just screams ‘What is the quickest way to get funding for the lowest possible production cost?’

    In the Agony shows it was sticking a camera in the face of Zwar’s famous mates and asking them to spit out a bunch of semi-conscious responses to generic prompt questions before the whole crew nipped off down the pub for a drink. There were no expenses to worry about, no scripts to develop, it literally felt like – aside from the editing process to give the whole thing some sort of milquetoast shape – that it was slapped together over a few weekends. Even the illustrating footage to break up the talking heads was all black and white, copyright free grabs of nondescript people doing nondescript things.

    And this feels surprisingly similar. Even with a script (or at the very least, some scenario designs that the actors can work around), you can feel the premise pitch to all of the actors:

    ‘You want me to do a series? I don’t know, that’s a big commitment…’

    ‘Nah, nah, nah. You’ll just come in one or two days. We’ll film all your bits in one go. Straight through. Then cut it up over several weeks.’

    ‘How’s that going to work? How will we do all the set-ups? The production will be…’

    ‘It’s all one set! We’ll do all the scenes in one location. Just pretend they’re on different days.’

    ‘But that’s a lot of material! How do we learn all the blocking and action?’

    ‘There is no action! It’ll all happen off screen. You just need to talk about what happened.’

    ‘Monologues? That’s still pretty exhausting.’

    ‘You can sit down! Do the whole thing in a chair. We’ll… I don’t know, put you in a car, or something. Yeah. In a car. So you’re on your way to doing something. Hell, we can put cue cards on the other side of the windshield.’

    ‘What, so I’m squinting the whole time, trying to read the words?’

    ‘Hang on a minute… Squinting…?’

    And scene.