At the heart of Australian Epic is an assumption that you will find the concept of the series funny. Musical theatre-style songs about half-remembered events from Australia’s recent past? How hilarious! The problem is, after several decades of ironic musicals (Keating!, Shane Warne: The Musical) the idea of presenting a musical about something seemingly a bit ridiculous to write a musical about doesn’t seem quite so funny anymore.
This means that Australian Epic lives or dies as a comedy based on whether the songs in each episode are funny or not. And in most cases, they aren’t funny songs in and of themselves.
So, with no funny songs to speak of, and its over-arching concept a joke that’s had better days, what is the point of Australian Epic? This is something we were wondering until we watched the final episode of the show (airing next week but currently on iView) on the Tampa crisis.
The Tampa crisis was a moment which divided the nation. For those who were on the side of letting the Tampa refugees into Australia, it was also a time when the true colours of many ordinary Australians were laid, bleakly and shockingly, bare. Was this really what people thought about refugees? Yes, it really was.
The Tampa episode of Australian Epic is intercut with footage of John Howard electioneering on the issue, and a contemporary interview with then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, showing how cynically the then government dealt with the issue. Ruddock, asked what he thinks now about the decisions the Howard government made, says, with a coldness that will chill your bones, that he sleeps very well at night, thanks very much. Meanwhile, Abbas Nazari, one of the Tampa refugees and a child at the time of the crisis, who was later accepted as a refugee by New Zealand, turns out to have become a Fullbright Scholar, reminding us that we not only missed an opportunity to change people’s lives for the better but that we missed out on their potential. Shame on us.
But it’s the final song in the Tampa episode of Australian Epic that really hammers this point home. Entitled “Thank God That’s All The Past”, it’s the rundown of the legacy of Tampa, in which over the past 20+ years, right up until today, Australia has locked up, mistreated, abused, and killed refugees, irrespective of who they are, or which political party’s been in charge. It’s not exactly hilarious, but it’s probably the pithiest piece of satire on Australian TV since John Clarke’s untimely death in 2017. So, on that basis, Australian Epic did have a point. And a very good one at that.