Taking the Dirt Nap

In Limbo is the ABC’s latest dramedy, and in classic dramedy fashion it’s about a topic so hilarious you don’t even need to write jokes to get laughs: a husband and father kills himself and nobody knows why. Comedy gold!

To be fair (why? – ed), that isn’t really the comedy part. Oh no, the comedy part is that the dead guy is still hanging around as a ghost and only his best mate can see (and hear) him. This is a chestnut so old it’s grown into a tree and the roots are getting into the plumbing so the whole thing’ll have to be taken out. But hey, cliches are cliches for a reason.

In Limbo begins with Charlie (Ryan Coor) being a bit of a sad sack, despite the wise-cracking presence of his best mate Nate (Bob Morely). What could possibly have put him in such a sombre mood? Oh wait, he’s going to a funeral – and it’s Nate’s funeral! Whuuuuuuuuuut.

Seriously, it’s always a bit odd watching a series where the opening scene or scenes build to a big reveal that all the promotional material gave away the first chance it could. Obviously some people are going to tune in knowing absolutely nothing (and In Limbo doesn’t drag it out either), but it does set up a weird dissonance between what we know and what the series assumes we know.

Anyway, Charlie is a bit of a gloomy gus even before that, as we flashback to ten days ago when Nate still had a body and Charlie didn’t have anybody thanks to a now-distant bad divorce he’s not even remotely over. Nate and his wife Freya (Emma Harvie) have set him up on a date, it all goes well, he returns to Nate’s place to spread the good news and something seems to be jammed up against the front door. Uh oh.

Way, way too often in this country we get dramedies where it feels like the film makers wanted to tackle a “tough” subject (suicide, grief, depression, and so on) but realised that unless they figured out a way to make it entertaining nobody would actually watch their creation. In Limbo isn’t quite that bad, largely because Nate is an authentically funny and likable presence. But you’re not going to be splitting your sides either.

There’s a tendency amongst local critics to praise series simply because they’re trying to be both dramatic and funny:

Yet, as with the opening sequence, this is deceptive, because while In Limbo has the pace and tone of a sitcom, it can also pack a potent emotional punch. It’s a serious study wrapped in bright and shiny packaging.

We’d like to think what’s more important is whether a): they’re doing a good job of it, and b): is this a topic that really needs the whole “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” approach – after all, what’s so bad about treating a serious subject seriously once in a while?

The idea with In Limbo is that beneath the wacky banter between the two male leads there lurks a world of pain. Charlie won’t face up to whatever it is that caused the end of his marriage: Nate killed himself for reasons unknown (the fact his ghost won’t explain points to the “ghost” merely being a projection of Charlie’s, but honestly who cares?). Not an automatically shit idea.

It’s in getting the balance right that the difficulty lurks. Often it’s like “this is the funny scene” followed by “this is the dramatic scene”, and when there’s a transition mid scene it’s signposted pretty heavily. Charlie is usually the sad one; Ryan is the upbeat one (except when he isn’t). It makes sense for the characters but in the context of the show tends to force their scenes into a dynamic that’d work better in a more straightforward comedy. Especially with a whole bunch of subplots about family and the funeral and Nate’s nutty “break on through to the other side (the afterlife)” schemes and Charlie’s burgeoning love life also on the go.

On the plus side of the ledger, Coor and Morely make for a strong double act. Each does well navigating the many demands of a script that requires them to go from zanky pranksters to devastated mourners and back again. There’s enough chemistry there to smooth over a lot of the potholes; if there’s a reason to keep watching, it’s them.

And yet, would this have been a better series if it had allowed them to focus on one side of things with only occasional glimpses of the other? Yeah, probably.

In Limbo‘s big problem is that it falls between two stools (so it’s… in limbo? – ed). A stronger focus on either side of the story would have made for a better series. A serious drama about grief and the constraints of modern masculinity with the occasional funny moment would have been more powerful; a comedy about a guy and his ghost mate with the occasional moment of insight into the pain they’re both feeling would have been funnier and more memorable.

The result is a series that’s… oh wait, we already did the “in limbo” gag.

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