Hey look, The Back Side of Television is back, and it’s so good we actually watched every episode before coming here to tell you about it. Yeah yeah, we’ll get around to watching those other episodes of Gold Diggers later – it’s just nice to be watching an Australian comedy where you come away thinking “more, please”.
But is it a comedy? As a look back at the weird and… well, mostly just weird world of Australian television, there are plenty of moments across the six half hour episodes (now all available on Binge) where you’ll laugh. But there are a lot more moments where you’ll be more like “huh, I did not know that” or “geez, they really trashed children’s television because of Fat Cat?”
This “documentary, but with snark” approach isn’t exactly a new trend – see our earlier coverage of The Betoota Advocate Presents – and while the growing lack of actual comedy in so-called comedy programs is a bit of a downer, at least in this case the show itself is so good it doesn’t feel like we’re missing out.
Each episode features a central topic or two surrounded by a few shorter segments that are just going for laughs; edit together enough bizarre intros to Unsolved Mysteries and you’re going to strike comedy gold eventually. Beyond that, the idea is to shine some light on how television in this country is (or was) made, whether it’s the way the networks often put good series in the bin, how what you see isn’t what you get with games shows*, or the feeling that an awful lot of Australian television seems to have been based on the idea of trying to prevent anyone else from muscling in on the producers turf.
Host Mitch McTaggart’s done his research and then some. There’s a lot of old press material backing up the unseen and long forgotten material here – shithouse sitcom for kids Carrots is only the tip of the crappy iceberg – to create a range of stories that are both well told and eyebrow-raising.
What there isn’t in this series is a lot of straight TV reviewing (that’s more of a Last Year of Television thing), but review-ish segments like the compare and contrast between shark-themed television (the recent Bite Club and the 80s Shark’s Paradise) are funny and informative. Like much of what’s on show in the rest of the series, they’re also a grim reminder that the local industry has really become a lot more bland and boring in the 21st century.
Obviously it helps a lot to be already interested in television, but this is quality stuff whichever direction you approach it from. The final episode is a bit of an outlier, being mostly a television-related true-crime expose (complete with re-enactments, featuring an orange turtleneck with Tony Martin inside). It’s a high point in a series that doesn’t put a foot wrong.
If McTaggart wanted to shift his focus to more popular subjects** and become a much bigger name, he could. This is a series that literally spells out how television news went from being educational and informative to a blatant attempt to terrify viewers because of ratings, so don’t think he’s not aware where the money lies.
For now at least, we*** should all be grateful he’s sticking with the small screen.
*a segment that was memorable in part because, while it was having a go at the networks for being shonky, it also took the time to point out that a lot of the attacks on networks for being shonky were also in themselves shonky – the point here isn’t merely to have a go at bad television, it’s to hold bad television up to a decent standard. The enemy of my enemy isn’t my friend if they’re both as bad as each other
**this usually means sport