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No Activity TV review: Stan’s gloriously good cop show about nothing

When characters in Seinfeld pitched their idea for a television series to NBC – the famous “show about nothing” – the writers hit a meta note. Here was a program about characters who do nothing other than talk spearheading a program about characters who do nothing other than talk.

Ironically Seinfeld became a show about a great many things. Important things not so much, but things nevertheless. The search to buy a certain kind of pastry or a certain kind of car, for example, or the consequences of various indulgences: from addiction to soup served by a crazy food artisan to shaving with butter or sleeping in a hot tub.

The characters in the new six-part Australian comedy series No Activity, which launches October 22 on Stan, are cops or criminals. Two detectives are on a stakeout and there’s speculation a big drug deal is about to go down. The story – well, context – is loosely based on a massive 2007 real-life bust, when smugglers attempted to bring 15 million ecstasy pills into Melbourne via tomato cans.

But co-creators Patrick Brammall and Trent O’Donnell (also writer/director) add a gloriously Seinfeldian twist: nothing ever happens. The drug dealers, supposing they exist somewhere, are Godot-like in their ability to no-show, which means the program is almost entirely comprised of inane conversations filling time until, well, nothing.

No Activity is the first Australian-made commission produced for a commercial streaming service in Australia, Stan beating the likes of Netflix in creating unique (and, thankfully, quality) local content.

Brammall and O’Donnell were inspired on the set of ABC’s The Moody’s, pondering what happens during police stakeouts involving lots of waiting. According to the press notes co-star David Field, the seasoned character actor and connoisseur of unsavoury characters, suggested the same scenario be contemplated from the perspective of criminals.

No Activity has the sort of concept that sounds fun but runs into problems. Without a backbone of plot, performance-oriented elements like dialogue and timing take on heightened relevance. If the cast don’t nail a good rhythm, entertainment value can quickly go up in smoke.

What a pleasant surprise that the first two episodes (I would have happily smashed through the entire series but they weren’t all available for media to watch) are absolute crackers. More than one LOL in the first five minutes put it in good stead, O’Donnell introducing bored detectives Hendy and Stokes (Brammall and Darren Gilshenan) then branching out into a slightly wider network.

Dispatch officers Carol (Genevieve Morris) and newcomer April (Harriet Dyer) man the phones at HQ. The crims are played by Field, Dan Wyllie and Sam Simmons; the latter’s sparking bald spot — in itself a marvellous array of nothingness — proving valuable in bringing closure to banter about circumcision.

Each of the actors contributed to the writing process and despite a foundation of waffle the show plays out quick, in moreish bam-bam-bam bites, avoiding the sketch comedy curse of having to reinvent the wheel and reset the parameters every few minutes. No Activity doesn’t seem like it’s working hard to impress; there is a good energy and jive to it.

Production values are slick and the photography graded beautifully. Goons in the warehouse are shaded with an icky green-yellow, police dispatch a steely blue-white and roving bird’s eye view shots of the CBD at night somewhere in between.

Ultimately enjoyment rests on the conversations, and listening to this small network of ninnies rabbit on proves oddly addictive. Some exchanges (like “How was your weekend?” “It’s a Wednesday”) are all in the delivery, while others are very well written and outwardly funny. When Hendy delivers to April an update that they are “maintaining surveillance on seemingly empty warehouse” he seems to say it all.

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