Last year, the ABC ambitiously launched The Weekly, Charlie Pickering’s answer to the US news satire programs like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Pickering was clearly considered a bankable host, coming off almost six years of hosting Ten’s The Project, so 20 episodes of The Weekly were ordered, sight unseen.
The program stuck very closely to the templates laid down by Jon Stewart and John Oliver, and initially the ratings were quite strong, although they fluctuated over the course of the season substantially. The critical reception was lukewarm, but the ABC has stuck with the format for 2016.
The Weekly has been given a generous 14 episodes by the ABC for its second season in the prime 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot (a slot around which a full line-up of comedy programs is usually built). In its first episode back, it was seen by just 577,000 metro viewers (less than an excellent episode of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, which was up against far stiffer competition at 8pm). It’s a soft start for a show meant to hold together the Wednesday night line-up.
The Weekly hasn’t evolved in any meaningful way since the first season — if anything, the first episode back is more derivative, less entertaining and shallower — and its return begs the question: why has the ABC put so much faith in such a weak property?
The series never comes close to the incisiveness or sheer satirical force of its international counterparts. Pickering is a likeable enough host, but his delivery tends to flatten out many of the gags — there’s a serious sincerity in everything he says which not only makes the show not particularly entertaining (the 33 minutes of last night’s episode felt far longer) but tends to make you gloss over whatever political point he might be making.
Bizarrely, the second season kicked off with a lengthy segment on the US presidential election. I suppose that’s because the comedic potential of American politics is currently far higher than the comedic potential of Australian politics (thanks, always-sensible-sounding Mal and bland-and-inoffensive Bill). But a segment about just how unlikable Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s personality is seems kind of lightweight.
This was followed with a segment from Tom Gleeson about raising ignorance — as opposed to awareness. It’s a sweet idea, but the segment didn’t quite come together. Then one with Kitty Flanagan about e-cigarettes which was quite fun — Flanagan’s delivery is always spot-on and she’s got to be the show’s greatest asset — but missed out on several opportunities to actually explain what e-cigarettes are. Sure, that was meant to be part of the gag, but it’s actually less funny to not know.
Pickering also interviewed actor Ben Stiller, and while it was one of the more entertaining chats with a movie star in the middle of a press junket, it made this episode even more lightweight than it had already been.
Perhaps the strongest part — although it was dragged out too long — was Pickering’s “explainer” on match-fixing in sports and some of the more recent scandals (but he still lags behind his replacement on The Project, Waleed Aly, in these segments).
Frankly, if the team is struggling to be particularly entertaining or informative in the first episode alone, the outlook for this season looks dire.
The writing for The Weekly has often been quite strong — although the writers’ room probably needs a better mix of comedians and news folk — but there are just as many missteps.
Last year’s season ended with a passionate speech from Pickering and a glitzy production number encouraging men not to rape — it failed to be either funny or particularly profound. Of course, it was immediately praised as “important” and led to a long list of news sites running headlines like “Charlie Pickering tackles/skewers/destroys victim blaming”. Pickering was lauded for stating something pretty blatantly obvious, but, as Clementine Ford pointed out at the time, women have been lambasted for saying exactly the same things.
I just don’t believe this is the best that we can do in the news satire arena, and we need to stop celebrating mediocrity. ABC2’s The Roast was consistently funnier and more responsive and The Chaser, in their vastly different formats, managed to force their audience to reconsider the way we look at news and politics more often than The Weekly. All The Weekly ever seems capable of is reinforcing its audience’s already moderate-liberal views.
And I’m sure everybody is sick of the comparison being made, but Shaun Micallef managed to riff on the American news satire format in a genuinely subversive way in Mad As Hell. Despite Micallef’s ambitions to create even more episodes of his series, the ABC has only given him 12 for the year.
By comparison, The Weekly is a show with very little going for it. It’s bland, shallow, not particularly funny and a wasted opportunity.