How To Stay Awake

The continuing presence of How To Stay Married on Australian television screens is one of those mysteries that isn’t really a mystery in the 21st century. We’re all increasingly aware that while the organisations and institutions around us claim to have our best interests in heart, in reality their agendas almost never involve things like “giving the people what they want”. Because who in their right mind wants more of How To Stay Married?

As a thrilling vision of the sitcom as combination homewear store and greeting card rack, How To Stay Married pretty much delivers all the bland, forgettable, generic laughs you expect to get from a “humour” column in a high-end weekend newspaper supplement. There didn’t need to be a third season of this. There didn’t need to be a third episode of this.

Previous seasons of Married struggled with the whole “sitcom” side of things thanks to being based on a situation that was last topical in the late 1950s: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we made a show about a regular family… only the dad stayed at home while the mum went back to work?!? And then repeatedly had the mum stay at home as well because Lisa McCune is easily the best thing about this show and if Peter Helliar wasn’t the creator / writer / director / showrunner / entire reason this keeps getting made his character would have been bumped to an occasional guest role by week two.

Oh yeah, the reason why this keeps getting made because rating less than half a million viewers every week in prime time isn’t it: Channel Ten wants to stay in the Peter Helliar business. This is a sitcom as vanity project, a show nobody really gives much of a shit about but it strokes the ego of the star so whoops, here it is again. Remember Ten’s other recent sitcom, Mr Black? That actually got an overseas development deal (because America didn’t realise it was a rip off of Kingswood Country, which was itself a rip off of All In the Family), yet a second season remains nowhere to be seen because nobody who appeared on it is a regular co-host on The Project.

(Here’s a fun question: has Peter Helliar ever fronted – not appeared in, but headlined – anything that was successful? Answers on the back of a question card from his gameshow Cram!)

Unfortunately for people who like to laugh, Peter Helliar is the Scott Morrison of comedy, a daggy dad suit worn by a cold-eyed marketing man who does his best work seething with rage. Even How to Stay Married can’t deny it, with this season’s big twist being that while his sitcom wife wrote a book about him being a shit dad, he’s the one making bank off it thanks to his relentless marketing of his spin-off podcast.

Hang on a sec. So a woman writes a book about how her husband is shit, which is presented as a bad thing because it’s a betrayal of her husband even though he actually is shit. Then we’re told the book itself is (ha ha) a flop and she’s washed up, but it all worked out because the shit husband is now a successful semi-celebrity thanks to her hard work. But don’t worry: next week she gets her face rubbed in her failure yet again.

Either this show is making a remarkably subtle point about the way white guys always come out on top despite putting in the least effort, or it’s punishing the female lead for speaking up about being unhappy with a husband who is basically shit. One is smart and insightful, the other leaves a bad taste in your mouth: guess which one is the most likely?

The cruelty of the plot aside, usually sitcoms based around this kind of dynamic – one’s lazy, the other’s highly strung – work by getting us to side with the highly strung character. We can all sympathise with being frustrated by someone else, especially if they don’t seem to care yet everything works out for them. It’s certainly possible to make a sitcom where the moral is “haha, caring about things is for chumps” – it worked out great for Animal House – but that’s basically an antagonistic relationship. It’s fine for workplace sitcoms where people are stuck with each other, but in a relationship comedy there’s got to be some reason why there isn’t a murder by week five.

How To Stay Married gets around this by being completely half-arsed. It’s The Peter Helliar Show so obviously he’s the one we’re meant to sympathise with even though he’s playing an annoying lazy screw-up. Why does his wife stay with him even though she literally wrote a book about how he’s shit? Why is Scott Morrison PM?

The idea of the hot wife and the slobby husband is a sitcom cliche so tired it’s been mocked for decades (“it’s a grim life for the thin wife”, as one article put it). And yet here we are, serving it up yet again in Australia in 2021. Beyond that – and some decent comedy performers utterly wasted in supporting roles – there’s nothing here.

Each week this serves up plots so lightweight they barely take place at all. Will the older daughter get a job at a cinema? Is a bully stealing the younger daughter’s lunch? If a relative tried to tell you this stuff you’d be yawning halfway through the second line of their text message: how many millions of dollars did Ten pay for this crap?

Getting three seasons of a sitcom on Australian commercial television is an amazing achievement in the 21st century. Getting three seasons of a sitcom that seems to have made no impression whatsoever on anyone is even more impressive.

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