It may have taken us a little while to notice – maybe we were distracted by the ABC playing the wrong episode of Mad as Hell, maybe we were too depressed over the return of Squinters – but over the last week or so pretty much all of Ten’s new comedy programs for 2019 have wrapped up. Mr Black; Kinne Tonight; even Taboo. All mates, all dead.
Of course, Ten still has Have You Been Paying Attention?, which for sheer comedy (and ratings) pretty much renders all the rest superfluous. And there’s still a couple of shows left to come from their pilot program last year – not that Trial by Kyle and whatever they end up calling Rove’s Saturday Night variety show are really going to count as “comedy”. But still, for a brief moment Ten was treating local comedy like it was something commercial networks should be making and we’re still struggling to get the surprised look off our faces.
That said, do we really think this brief spurt of comedy is going to have any lasting effect? Mr Black may or may not return but it kind of feels like it probably won’t; Kinne Tonight – or some version thereof – probably will, if only because Troy Kinne has proven remarkably resilient over the years. Taboo only had a handful of episodes in the first place and even then felt like it was maybe outstaying its welcome, but if they can find some more telegenic yet troubled people (pro tip: hang around outside the studios where they film the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That) we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more episodes somewhere down the line.
What really made this burst of comedy interesting was that it still felt like an experiment. Usually comedy series on commercial networks – and increasingly the ABC, but we’ll get to that – are presented as basically a done deal: here’s our big new comedy series, if you like comedy you’d better watch it because if it flops we’re not coming back here in a hurry. But by putting a range of different shows on at roughly the same time, it felt like Ten was supporting the general idea of comedy rather than putting all their eggs in one basket: here’s a range of comedy, fingers crossed you’ll like at least one of them.
It almost goes without saying that this is a much, much better way to treat comedy. Drama might work just fine when expectations are built sky high, but comedy requires a lighter touch… which is why comedy increasingly struggles to stand out in our hype-focused world. Put another way, nobody ever says a drama was “surprisingly dramatic”, but “surprisingly funny” is high praise indeed. We’re not getting carried away with Ten’s line-up here – none of these shows were ground-breaking, or even particularly fresh – but this is the path to go down if you want to give fresh comedy a chance.
Notably, this is not the path that the ABC has gone down in recent years. While they’ve talked a good game with their various Fresh Blood online efforts and their own Comedy Showroom pilot week, the actual scripted comedy shows they’ve put to air over the last five years or so have almost entirely been renewals of series that nobody really wanted back.
Where previously nothing scripted went past two series, Rosehaven and Upper Middle Bogan both scored three series (so far) and Utopia has its fourth coming up; even Very Small Business got a second season after almost a decade off the air. And the “new” series have just been the same kind of thing from the same handful of producers. What was Sando but a slightly tweaked version of The Moodys? What’s Squinters but a slightly bigger version of No Activity?
“Playing it safe” doesn’t begin to cover it with this tired line-up: the ABC’s scripted comedy is predictable, boring, boringly predictable and predictably boring. The reason why Ten can look a lot better with a handful of shows that aren’t exactly ground-breaking is that there’s a sense that they’re willing to put things out there and see if they work whereas the ABC has already decided what’s going to work long before their shows reach the screen and they’ve locked in a second season no matter what.
Which is even more depressing because Ten’s Pilot Week line-up for 2019 is pretty much devoid of comedy as we know it, instead featuring four reality shows and this, which has “not very dramatic but also not very funny” written all over it:
Part Time Privates.
Two mothers at a local primary school decide to start a home-based private investigation business so they can enjoy flexible working hours. As their business unexpectedly thrives, they find themselves thrown deep into the world of working ‘undercover’; moving between school pick-ups, dance group and lunch orders, to threesomes, insurance fraud and failed relationships. Starring Heidi Arena and Nicola Parry.
Still, at least it’s not another season of Rosehaven.