Australian comedy on the television currently has a somewhat more political focus than usual. Two political comedies on at once! That’s like… 50% of all current output being firmly aimed at our political masters. Wow, it’s like they’re actually relevant to our lives and not a colorful distraction while mining companies stripmine the outback or something.
We speak, of course, of Mad as Hell and Utopia, two shows that currently run back to back but which have somewhat different views of politics as it operates today. We’re not talking about their political leanings as such – it’s not like either ends with a stirring rendition of The Internationale more’s the pity, though with Mad as Hell you never know. It’s more that… well, let’s do this properly.
Obviously both shows take the view that politicians are fairly evil – if you want a show that blatantly sucks up to our leaders, you’ll have to wait until The Chaser get another ABC series. Both show politicians (and by extension, their handlers) as being largely interested in their own interests, which usually involve how they’re perceived by the public, weird personal issues and possibly some kind of financial reward. Nothing controversial there.
And there continues to be nothing controversial two weeks in on Utopia, a show that flatters its audience by pretending to give them the inside scoop on how things really work while largely being the same kind of office hijinks producers Working Dog have been doing (to everyone’s amusement, admittedly) since Frontline.
But when it does get down to the business of how the country’s being run, it’s almost always as a business. The names of the developments change but the game remains the same – politicians and their handlers want to announce big ticket items, business wants to make a profit, the people handling the spin are only interested in the optics of the situation and in the end nothing ever changes. The comedy comes from the futility of it all; the people trying to do good are the only ones who ever come away unhappy.
You’d have to live in a very secure bubble indeed to think politics in 2019 is all about branding. Utopia feels like the last gasp of 20th century politics, where both sides are the same and nothing important is at stake so why not be cynical about the whole thing? Even in Australia the kind of “big ticket items” our governments focus on today are more about religious laws and the right to abortion than the bland nation-building concepts Utopia slots into their standard comedy format. Look at the state of the world today: it’s insulting to the audience to pretend that politics is just a dodgy process with outcomes that are basically irrelevant.
Here’s a fun game to play: every time Utopia makes a joke about a big government project being hijacked for political purposes, imagine they’re talking about the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Or anything else that actually has a serious impact on people’s lives. Because once you realise what’s at stake, Utopia‘s vaguely right-wing view that the best thing the government can do is get out of people’s way starts to look like a big “fuck you” to the people government is meant to help. Sure, Utopia doesn’t let government off the hook – but considering what’s at stake for all of us, they could definitely afford to go a bit harder.
Also, as Mad as Hell proves each week, having an actual concrete point of view makes your comedy funnier. Obviously Mad as Hell has some big advantages here; they’re directly parodying the ongoing nightmare that is current events, for one. And at a guess, Utopia started production with the expectation of a Labor federal government with policies that actually gave a shit about people; it’s a lot easier to sink the boot into politicians when they’re of the quality of someone like Peter Dutton.
What Mad as Hell does best is right there in the name. It’s a show that makes jokes that leave you in no doubt that some things get at least some of the people involved in the production angry. Which is as it should be: Australia isn’t exactly lead by saints at the moment, and many of the policies advocated by our politicians verge on the outright cruel. Plus also *waves in general direction of the world at large*… shit’s fucked.
You’d never know that from Utopia. It’s a smug dinner party chuckle of a comedy, a “you’ll never believe what happened at work today” story that everyone laughs at even though the punchline is a bunch of people were thrown out on the street. That’s not to say it’s not funny at times, or generally well made; it’s clearly a step above most of the other lightweight dramas trying to pass themselves off as comedies around here.
But it’s out of touch, and for a political comedy that’s fatal.