Reviews, Screen, TV

Ronny Chieng: International Student review (ABC TV)

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Ronny Chieng: International Student is so far the only one of six Comedy Showroom pilots to be given a full series. The Comedy Showroom was a rather unusual ABC initiative, which screened six comedy pilots to viewers last year, and asked for their thoughts on the various programs.

Apparently Ronny Chieng: International Student received some of the most positive feedback and an extraordinary social media response. But it’s also the Malaysian-born comedian Chieng’s rising international profile that helped the show get the green light.

The series has been co-commissioned by the ABC alongside US network Comedy Central, which airs The Daily Show, the popular news satire show which features Chieng as a senior correspondent.

International Student is loosely based on Chieng’s own experiences as an international university student in Melbourne, and the cultural clashes he experienced during his early years in Australia. It paints a picture of on-campus life that is uniquely Australian and full of hilarious contradictions.

I wrote that the pilot (which is still available to watch on iview) was “reliably funny”, but required a little more narrative development if it were to maintain an audience’s attention over a full season.

It seems clear that co-writers Chieng and Declan Fay have plenty of ideas for this satirical university setting, and have added a couple of wonderful new characters into the mix for the full series, but the final result is a series that’s a little inconsistent in terms of its tone and narrative style.

The two characters at the centre of the series are, thankfully, completely compelling. Ronny is just a little bit of a stick-in-the-mud, constantly frustrated by the shortcomings and stupidity of the people around him, and the role is played with a wonderful sincerity by Chieng himself.

His good friend — and potential love interest — Asher, played by Molly Daniels, is brilliantly funny, and has a down-to-earth, carefree (if sometimes careless) attitude that contrasts and compliments Ronny perfectly.

A new character has been added, who didn’t appear in the pilot (with the rather convenient excuse that he showed up to his first year at uni a week late): Craig Cooper (played by Patch May), a ratbag American exchange student.

It seems like Craig might’ve been added into the mix because the series has been co-commissioned by an American network, but the character feels like an after-thought, and doesn’t add any great new dimension to Chieng’s cultural critique. A few jokes about Craig “colonising” the International House student accommodation don’t quite go far enough. And I’m not sure May’s generic American accent will cut it with US audiences.

It’s also a shame that the stuffy, entitled, middle-class Australian law student Daniel Tremblay Birchall (played by Laurence Boxhall) doesn’t play as prominent a role as you might’ve expected from the pilot. He’s the perfect rival for Ronny.

But when the series hits its stride — as it does in the fourth new episode — it has a freshness and a comedic zing matched by few other comedies on TV. In that episode, Asher’s computer is taken over by a virus just hours before an important assignment is due.

The virus is Ronny’s fault — it came from a retro quest video game he tried to install on Asher’s computer — so he goes on his own quest to fix her laptop and recover the assignment files. At the same time, Asher goes on her own quest to receive special consideration, and has to jump through hoop after hoop set up by the incompetent and entirely unreasonable student admin officer Karen Ford, played with a brilliantly deadpan style by Adrienne Pickering.

The entire episode is structured like a retro video game, complete with a MIDI-style soundtrack moving the action forward.

Other highlights include a brilliant skewering of the futile, half-assed political actions of university students, as well as every appearance from Anthony Morgan as the first-year law lecturer Professor Dale. Dale isn’t exactly inspiring, and is long past his peak as a teacher. He’s the type of lecturer that generally gets fobbed off to first years when he should probably have already been dismissed.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this first full season of Ronny Chieng: International Student, and I’m hoping it gets another season. It’s the type of comedy that often takes a whole season to find its focus and its groove. It’s still a very entertaining piece of comedy, but I’m sure it could become even funnier and more incisive in its satire, given just a little more time and space.

[box]Ronny Chieng: International Student starts on ABC TV Wednesday June 7 at 9pm[/box]

4 responses to “Ronny Chieng: International Student review (ABC TV)

  1. I like Ronny’s stand up routines but that first ep is pretty bad. I may tune in again for ep 4 in the hope it’s as good as you say.

  2. I love Ronnies stuff but this show is terrible. I thought it was like a student production. Flat. Boring. Please give Ronnie back his comedy soul.

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