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ABC's new laughs: Please Like Me, Utopia, Reality Check

It’s been a big week for comedy on ABC TV, with the premieres of several new Australian shows, and the return of one critical hit. When it comes to television comedies, the ABC has been forging ahead for well over a decade now, consistently beating its commercial counterparts in terms of quality. The Wednesday night line-up on ABC has been up and down during that period, given the fact that most shows run for a limited period, but it’s delivered plenty of gems — Spicks and Specks, The Gruen Transfer, various Chaser projects, Upper Middle Bogan, The Moodys, The Librarians, Summer Heights High. 

So what was on offer this week? Firstly on Tuesday, Josh Thomas’s quirky Gen Y comedy Please Like Me returned with the first episode of its second season. The ABC decided to air the first season an ABC2, to try to bring younger viewers over to one of its secondary channels, and that’s where it’s staying for its second season. The show never rated brilliantly, but it did gain a solid following on ABC’s online platform iView and was picked up by a US network. It was rapturously received by American critics, who compared it to Lena Dunham’s Girls and placed it on several “Best of 2013” lists (and TIME magazine just featured the show in an article — How an American network saved one of TV’s best Twentysomethings).

The first season told the story of “Josh” (played by Thomas), a man in his early 20s who comes out as gay, tries to navigate his way around dating men, and how that fits within his already chaotic circle of friends and family. The first few episodes of the original series immediately made it clear that this was a show that tapped into its audience in a way that few manage to, with an aesthetic style and a type of dialogue that’s very generation-specific. But soon enough it became more than that — a series about identity, friendship and the difficult, messy business of family. Was anybody expecting it to be quite so insightful and well-constructed? I certainly wasn’t.

So the second series, which was co-commissioned by the ABC and American network Pivot, comes with high expectations. This new episode speaks as clearly to Gen Y as the show ever did, with all our insecurities and seemingly-bizarre world views getting a look-in. It is, in many ways, a modest, light episode; every character is relatively satisfied and there’s not a whole lot of conflict (although a few things are hinted at). But by the end, when Rose (played brilliantly by Debra Lawrance) comes bounding in to announce she’s gone off her medication for her various mental health problems, and innocently starts lobbing grenades into the happiness, it becomes apparent that this season won’t shy away from the dark ground that made the first so strong.

On Wednesday night, two new series premiered on ABC1, starting with the latest from the Working Dog team, a satire called Utopia. Coming from the folks behind The Hollowmen and Frontline, and set in a government department — the National Building Authority — you basically know what to expect. It’s essentially about the quirks and hypocrisies of bureaucracies and the people who work within them. I imagine people with experience working in bureaucratic organisations would get plenty of great laughs out of it, but it’s not Working Dog’s greatest work.

It’s solidly funny, but its satire rarely cuts below the surface, and there’s not a lot here that’s new. Most of the gags come from the organisation’s obsession with appearance; that, above all else, they have to be seen to be doing the right thing by the taxpayers who fund their department. It’s blessed with some excellent characters, and fine comedic performances, most obviously Rhonda, played by Kitty Flanagan, who is constantly, loudly espousing her “vision” and demanding that it be met by all around her.

Immediately following Utopia is Reality Check, which is basically The Gruen Transfer, but about reality television. In the show, a panel made up of reality TV experts and former reality stars dissect recent offerings and the art of reality TV. Given that the vast majority of highest-rating shows in Australia are reality, it’s worth looking a little more closely at exactly why we’re so fascinated. Over the last decade, as sad as it seems, reality TV has become a major part of how many people relate the world around them.

In its premiere episode, TV executive and reality producer Marion Farrelly said, in defence of the Pilipino version of The Voice Kids, which broadcast footage of dozens of distraught, crying children who were knocked out of the show: “There’s nothing more beautiful than real life.” But so much of the series is focused on demystifying and deconstructing the reality (or not) or reality TV, and seeing just how much of it really is “real life”. It turns out, usually, not much.

With comedian and former Triple J Breakfast host Tom Ballard taking on hosting duties, the first episode got off to a flying start. There were a few awkward moments when the natural dynamics of the panel discussion weren’t buzzing along as smoothly as they could, but it’s a very promising start. And for pure entertainment value, it’s a clear winner, able to draw on clips from the craziest and most exciting reality shows the whole world over.

Utopia and Reality Check were both solid ratings winners for the ABC, giving the network its biggest audience share all year, with 778,000 capital city viewers tuning in to Utopia and 559,000 sticking around for Reality Check. Over the coming weeks we’ll see if audiences take these shows into their hearts as they did with The Gruen Transfer and Spicks and Specks, but it’s already heartening to see this many decent Australian premieres in one week.

All these shows are currently available on iView and have their second episodes next week, so if you’re yet to see them, there’s plenty of time to catch up.

5 responses to “ABC's new laughs: Please Like Me, Utopia, Reality Check

  1. Please Like Me : Debra Lawrence’s performance in the last five minutes was riveting and painfully real. Thomas writes beautifully. The acting (some improvised?) is natural.
    Reality Check is a winner. Ballard is a charmer.
    Utopia: usual Working Dog flair. Top notch cast.

  2. I am also a former public servant. While Utopia captured some of the petty irritations of working for gubmint, it didn’t delve beneath the surface of things, which is what great satire does. I was hoping it would be more like Frontline, which I think is Working Dog’s best work. Frontline really savaged the world of the media.

    Please Like Me is terrible. No wonder it rates so lowly. I really don’t get it. There’s no plot, no drama, and worst of all, no jokes. Seriously – exactly how is it supposed to be a comedy (or dramedy)? It doesn’t even have the sweet tone of the first series. When Josh swears it sounds fake; like he’s trying to be hip, which he isn’t. The show reminds me of Girls – a lot of critical praise, but no-one actually watches it.

  3. Sorry to disagree with you both Ben and Wilful, as a former public servant myself, I thought the show was easily the best production coming out of Working Dog. The parodies were more sophisticated, intelligent and creative, the production was the best I seen from them. I loved most of all is that it brings out the craziness of humanity set in a totally artificial setting – that is, bureaucracy.

  4. Actually, speaking as a (former) bureaucrat, Utopia doesn’t really work for me. It either brings up painful references to real life irritations, or it misses the mark. The whole logo debate, that’s nothing like how it would have happened, though it was funny enough, but it could have been just as funny if it happened more like in real life.

    (And Rob Sitch’s character needs to wear a tie. The bigwigs still wear ties 100% of the time).


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