In the first ten minutes of its final episode Retrograde slapped down the “whoops, someone’s dead, time to get serious” card so hard for a moment we thought we were watching Please Like Me all over again. Was there an eulogy full of “confronting” swearing? Was there a slowed down super-sad cover version of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”? Was this show still a comedy? Answers on the back of a postcard.
It’s been close to thirty years now since sitcoms first started seriously exploring the concept of a wacky group of friends just hanging out. It’s probably time somebody came up with a new idea. The twist here was meant to be that the whole show took place via a “not Zoom” conference call, but most of the time that was used for the kind of reaction shots from other cast members that are supposed to make you think you’re watching something funny when all you’re really watching is a bunch of reaction shots.
Which pretty much sums up Retrograde. Firmly determined to put together a cast of cool types pushing 30 who act like teenagers, it never managed to come up with any kind of comedy dynamic between the cast, let alone much comedy in general (the comedy climax involved two characters hiding behind an umbrella while someone threw fruit at them). The online chat format definitely limited any kind of physical chemistry between the cast, but there was no real attempt to conjure up verbal sparks here either. Anyone could have been talking to anyone else for all the difference it made; there was never a point where two characters really stood out as a funny team.
Supposedly the biggest problem facing rom-coms this century has been the lack of obstacles to keep would-be lovers apart. When society is largely on board with the idea that “the heart wants what the heart wants”, it’s tough to keep two or more people apart long enough for a story to develop. So you’d think the enforced isolation of lockdown would be a boon to anyone looking to put together a romantic comedy, right? Not if you were watching Retrograde.
Considering there was next to nothing else going on dramatically each week, it’s bizarre how badly this fumbled the rom-com side of things. All that needed to be done was to have two likable characters flirt and fall for each other, only to find they couldn’t be together; instead this spun its wheels for six weeks as our heroine moved in with one guy then wondered about another but still felt something for the first guy and everyone else though the other guy was a jerk and… why did we care again? And how do you write a love triangle where both of the guys are losers?
Pretty much all the classic “will they or won’t they” plotlines in sitcoms weaved in and out of a whole lot of episodes that were about something else entirely (also: funny). Likewise, the rare successful dramatic moment in a sitcom usually came as a surprising change of pace well into the run, not as a predictable end to the first handful of episodes. Traditionally, these things worked because they were rarely used: the currently popular idea that if you take 22 episodes worth of unresolved sexual tension and surprise dramatic moments and pack them into six episodes they’ll work just as well has been proven to be a dud so many times now it’s worth wondering if anyone making sitcoms today ever watched anything beyond The Office and Friends.
often continually bitch about how Australian television comedy is increasingly driven by the desires of funding bodies and TV executives rather than audiences. That’s because when you ignore what people want to watch the result is shows like Retrograde: perfectly well-made products with decent casts that give viewers no reason whatsoever to keep watching. There was no comedy hook, no premise beyond “friends talk on Skype”, nothing going on that you could even put in a promo as a reason to tune in – let alone something to keep you coming back week after week because all this had going on was dull soap opera twists and a bunch of generic types being blandly sassy.
Retrograde wasn’t a failure. It wasn’t memorable enough for that.