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ABC Comedy Showroom: six new pilots reviewed

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It seems a little strange to be reviewing ABC’s pilot season Comedy Showroom when the primary purpose of the project is to hear what audiences think. These six pilots will be released to ABC iview tomorrow night, with one airing each Wednesday on ABC TV, and the broadcaster will be asking for audience feedback to help decide which show (or shows) returns as a full series.

But these new shows are worth considering beyond ABC’s brief questionnaires about each pilot. Fortunately, they’re a diverse group in terms of style and approach (if not necessarily content), and there are a few which show real promise.

The first to air is Ronny Chieng: International Studenta reliably funny fish-out-of-water tale drawn from comedian Ronny Chieng’s own experience of studying law at the University of Melbourne. It’s maybe not the greatest advertisement for the university (where the majority of the pilot is filmed) but it captures some hilarious truths about cliques and student experiences at Australian universities, from the hipster students to the post-grads lost in the deepest, darkest recesses of the library (with a great cameo from Felicity Ward).

It trades in some stereotypes — Ronny tells how his mother made him memorise the Dewey Decimal system as a child while his new Australian-born friend (played brilliantly by Molly Daniels) shares her father’s lessons in drinking. But all the characters, no matter their background, are painted with the same broad brushstrokes, which tend to reveal a lot about the cultural tensions at play.

It’s difficult to tell from this pilot how the series might develop: there’s no great overarching narrative established and the major conflict of the first episode is a little lightweight when there’s so much potential in these characters. It needs to pick up a little more heft if it’s to maintain an audience over a full season.


The second pilot, The Letdown, by Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell, has a massive cast of superb actors. Bell stars as the struggling new mother Audrey, Ewen Leslie as her husband, with Noni Hazlehurst, Sarah Peirse, Sacha Horler and Leon Ford in supporting roles.

It’s beautifully directed and performed and it has some great highlights: the opening scene, with a guest appearance by Patrick Brammall, finds laughs in a very unusual interaction, and the cinematography captures the isolation felt by Audrey. But the writing lacks a little finesse and often falls into cliche. There’s even that all-too-familiar sex scene between a married couple constantly interrupted by a baby crying.

The relationships are beautifully established — particularly between Audrey and her mother (Sarah Peirse, who is an outstanding talent and should be on more TV) — but like Ronny Chieng: International Student it doesn’t establish any central conflict to be tackled over the course of a full season.

The Legend of Gavin Tanner has a much clearer way forward: Gavin (played by creator Matt Lovkis) is a bogan, footy-loving, small-time weed dealer and a loser in every sense of the word. But when a new, strait-laced neighbour moves in next-door to Gavin, he decides they’re destined to be best friends.

It’s a fairly reliable sitcom set-up (you can draw a line straight through from The Beverly Hillbillies to Nine’s Here Come the Habibs to this show) but it’s used in a novel way, complete with narration by David Wenham. If there’s one of the Comedy Showroom pilots which has a clear path ahead of it, it’s this one.

Its biggest problem is that it’s not as funny as you might hope. There are a few decent laughs (many coming from Mandy McElhinney’s deliciously broad performance) but it’s inconsistent. Or maybe I’m just not the target demographic and there are those who will find the show genuinely hilarious.

I was a little bit surprised to discover that Eddie Perfect’s pilot The Future is Expensive is the most daring and fascinating of all six shows. The synopsis doesn’t sound particularly promising: “Eddie Perfect navigates modern life as husband and father, never certain whether the absurdity surrounding him is really happening or if it’s all some kind of surreal middle-class suburban plot against him.”

But the show finds a surreal tone quite unlike anything I’ve seen on TV before. The concerns it deals with are familiar, but the form is genuinely exciting, complete with an unexpected musical appearance from Paul Kelly. Given Perfect’s background in musical theatre and cabaret, it’s an interesting exploration of how music can be used to explore a character’s inner world on TV.

Bleak (pictured above) comes from the duo behind The Katering Show, Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan. Anna (Kate McLennan) loses her boyfriend, job and house in the space of one day. She suddenly finds herself totally lost and ends up rocking up on her parents’ doorstep looking for comfort and a place to stay. Unfortunately she has the upper-middle class family from hell who, after giving her a few drinks, declares that they don’t have the space to look after her.

The story of this struggling Gen-Y woman is, in some senses, familiar, but it’s taken to the extreme in this frequently hilarious series, complete with a cringeworthy breakdown at an open house. McLennan’s performance is devastatingly funny, lacking any kind of vanity, and her relationship with her vague and uncaring mother, played by the magnificent Jean Kittson, underpins all of her failings.

The final show, Moonman, created by Scott Taylor isn’t a bad piece of TV, but it feels tired and never really justifies its own existence. It follows a fictional version of comedian Lawrence Mooney (played by Mooney), who just won’t grow up. The show could have something interesting to say about adult responsibility as it goes on, but that doesn’t exactly come through in the pilot.

Perhaps the greatest part of the show is the role played by Ian Smith (Harold from Neighbours) as a foul-mouthed, sexually-driven radio DJ.

If I had to put my money on one of the shows, it would be Bleak. It seems ready to go in most respects and would probably draw a decent audience given the success of The Katering Show. But I’d love to see more of The Future is Expensive, and I think both Ronny Chieng: International Student and The Letdown could turn into something exciting given a little more development.

But that’s all ultimately up to the viewers.

[box]Comedy Showroom starts this Wednesday, 27 April at 9pm on ABC TV. All six pilots will be available to view on iview from Wednesday night[/box]

One response to “ABC Comedy Showroom: six new pilots reviewed

  1. Ronny needs better writers – he’s so funny, but this was a very weak effort. Lazy jokes about asians and even more lazy jokes about Aussies. Very broad/boring comedy from such a talented comedian, the jokes were straight out of a joke book…. Bleak could be good if they cast someone other than Kate McLennan. She is unlikeable and unfunny, and ruins an otherwise great show. Haven’t watched the others yet, hopefully they are better.

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