Back to Back in Black (vale Mr Black)

All you really need to know about Mr Black is the opening theme music, which isn’t so much music as a hipster sting that lets you know you’re about to watch what is perhaps the edgiest reboot of Kingswood Country ever. Which is weird, because the show that follows is a sitcom with a fairly silly premise. What’s going on?

The big problem with Mr Black is – well, there’s a bunch of problems with Mr Black (did anyone know that Angela was meant to be under 25?) and we’ve covered most of them earlier – but the underlying problem that’s made the series such a frustrating watch is that it’s a solid sitcom idea that’s seemingly being executed by a team that would rather be making something else. And with Ten burning off the final two episodes back-to-back in what’s traditionally seen as a sign of dismal ratings, they may very well get their chance.

We’ve said elsewhere that the idea of a grumpy out of touch dad making his son-in-law’s life a living hell is a good one – well, it was good enough for All in the Family, one of the all-time classic sitcoms – and the specific character dynamics here (wimpy dude is tormented by blokey bloke while his girlfriend kinda just lets it happen) worked well enough in Adam Zwar’s earlier sitcom Wilfred to keep it on the air for three seasons. But both those shows were openly funny (even if the funny in Wilfred largely came from the visual of Jason Gann in a dog suit); too often Mr Black seems to have its attention elsewhere.

The style if not the substance of sitcoms has changed a lot since the days when Australia made decent sitcoms, and let’s be honest – Australia hasn’t really kept up. It’s certainly possible to create a funny sitcom that’s filmed like a drama series, but Australia is yet to manage it. We’ve definitely made funny shows in the modern era, but sitcoms? Yeah, nah. And Mr Black is a good example why.

Each week Mr Black has served up a decent-sounding idea for a broadly amusing sitcom. Oh no, Fin has a secret son – or does he? Mr Black tries to set Fin up with a hot female friend who’s going to paint him nude! And yet the plots never really take off from there. To work, a sitcom needs to escalate – you start off with a funny premise and then build on it until events come to a head. Mr Black? Half the time the B-plot doesn’t even have an ending.

This has been a problem with Australian sketch comedy for a long, long time. Our crack comedy writers come up with a halfway decent premise for a sketch, and then… that’s it. The idea isn’t developed, it isn’t expanded on, it doesn’t take a surprising turn – the concept is explained, then the sketch ends. And Mr Black is what you get when you take this approach to sitcom writing.

To be fair, things do continue to happen across the entirety of a Mr Black episode; they just don’t get any funnier. Mr Black’s schemes don’t go hilariously wrong in ways that get him in deeper and deeper trouble; they just fall apart at the first hurdle. They’re scripted like a bad drama, where the initial situation is an excuse to do a bunch of character work that will reveal our protagonists’ inner natures and conflicts. But this is a sitcom, and nobody gives a shit. Fin has a new son, he plays with his son a bit, it turns out the kid isn’t his, the end. Why didn’t he lose the kid (for more than a minute)? Why didn’t the scammer have a second stage to their scheme? Why didn’t Fin, as a bit of a chump, instantly take things too far?

The final episode was even worse; why was there a serious subplot about Fin trying to propose to Angela? A serious moment or two, sure – but the whole thing revolved around Angela being seriously worried that Fin was going to leave her for the painter. We’re watching a sitcom: how is this meant to be funny? And if it’s not meant to be funny, why is it in a sitcom about a dodgy dad trying to ruin his daughter’s relationship? And why was the resolution basically just “guess I was wrong about that – of course I’ll marry you”?

Stephen Curry is the best thing in the show, and yet about 70% of his role is just him setting around saying mildly snarky things that could be removed from the script without affecting it in any way. Maybe the joke is meant to be that around Angela and Finn he’s a laid-back dude, then the second they’re gone he’s a manic schemer – but if so, then the direction needs to make that clear, not present everything at the same measured pace that’s seemingly lifted from one of the less memorable ABC dramas of the last ten years.

A strong cast working hard can’t make up for a farcical plot played out at a glacial pace. It feels like a half hour’s worth of Mr Black could easily be condensed down to five minutes – or a throwaway conversation before the opening title card.The whole idea of a sitcom is that you have a funny situation that means each week you can jump straight into the comedy; why does Mr Black always feel like it takes forever to get started?

To make a decent sitcom, every part of the show needs to work like it’s the only part that’s going to be funny. The production needs to sell the jokes, the performances need to sell the jokes, and the script needs to have jokes to tell the other two that things are going to be funny – then it needs a lot more jokes in case the other two are no good at selling them.

When your opening music is the kind of vaguely ominous guitar sting that suggests some try-hard edgy prestige dramedy and yet you’re a wacky sitcom on Channel Ten, someone somewhere isn’t doing their job.

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