Wakefield is a new ABC series from Jungle Entertainment, the production company responsible for, amongst other things, Squinters, Sando, The Moodys and Here Come the Habibs. It stars, amongst others, Felicity Ward, Sam Simmons and Mandy “I was in two seasons of Squinters” McElhinney. So it’s a comedy? Fuck no.
Comedy in this country faces a lot of problems. One of the big ones is that nobody actually wants to make it. Time and again we’re served shows that look like comedies – or worse, are promoted as comedies – only to turn out to be lightweight dramas with a few jokes mixed in. The drama undercuts the comedy, the comedy isn’t funny enough to make up for the lack of drama: can’t wait for season two of Aftertaste.
Wakefield proves that this is a problem that cuts both ways. A series about a bunch of people – staff and patients – at a mental home, it’s basically an anthology series with a lead (you know, the guy in all the advertising) who’s in it slightly less than you might think.
It’s also a drama: the mental patients are all treated as real characters rather than comedy relief, and the issues faced by the staff (the comedy performers are all playing members of staff, like they were in a sitcom that’s been absorbed by a bigger drama) are taken just as seriously. Nobody’s laughing at anyone, which raises the question: what’s Sam Simmons doing here?
Simmons is often entertaining to watch but he’s pretty much a one note performer. While there can be variations in that one note he’s not getting much chance to display them here. Ward is also working according to type (though she gets more to do as the series goes on), and while McElhinney has a bigger role, it’s also a broader one at times. While this obviously isn’t a comedy, by the current standards of “comedy” any or all of their characters would work just fine as written if they were in a comedy.
Over the last decade or so there’s been a lot of pressure on scripted television in Australia to be all things to everybody. With audiences shrinking, producers can’t afford to alienate anyone. Now they’re trying to tick as many boxes as they can, even if the show would be a lot better if it focused on one or two things and did them well. And all the cool kids here loved US shows that mixed drama and comedy like, say, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or (trigger warning) Louie. The fact they were extremely niche and rated poorly seems to have slipped their notice.
Wakefield isn’t a great drama. Often it’s barely dramatic at all, though it does pick up as it goes along. The perfectly reasonable choice to treat every character with respect (no cheap shots at the mentally ill here) seems to have left the writers struggling to figure out where the conflict is going to come from.
More importantly as far as we’re concerned, having all the medical crew played by comedy performers sets a weird tone that the series doesn’t do much of anything with. They’re the wacky backdrop to the real medical staff, only there’s no real reason for them to be particularly wacky beyond “we’ve got to make this show entertaining somehow”. These are funny performers: why aren’t they doing what they do best? Oh right, because going full comedy would undercut the drama.
Many of the great television dramas have been extremely funny at times. But they usually got laughs because the characters were so well crafted they could – like actual real people – be both funny and serious depending on the situation.
It’s easy to make a comedy character seem deep by giving them a dramatic scene; the real challenge is giving a serious character a funny scene that’s actually funny.