Before I sat down to watch ABC TV’s new comedy series Back in Very Small Business I expected – outrageous though it may sound – to watch a show about a very small business. Dylan Moran’s book shop in Black Books: that was a small business. The pizza shop in Fat Pizza: a slightly bigger small business. Pier Diner in Home and Away, home of ‘stone the flamin’ crows’ Alf Stewart: yes, another small business.
So when I hit play on the first of eight episodes (this review encompasses episodes one to three) I was surprised discover that Back in Very Small Business revolves around a business empire. Helmed by businessman Don Angel (Wayne Hope), the press notes describe his Worldwide Business Group as “a portfolio of frequently audited companies.” The individual enterprises include a dog wash franchise, a discount furniture store and a novelty toilet paper manufacturer.
Dan and his team – including business partner Ray (Kim Gyngell), EA Celeste (Robyn Nevin), CFO Kim (Aaron Chen) and managing director and social media coordinator Sam (Molly Daniels) – pool resources. They work out brand strategies and oversee advertising for the various initiatives, which seem like different departments of the same company.
The series – which runs for eight episodes and was created and written by Robyn Butler, Wayne Hope and Gary McCaffrie, conceived a sort-of sequel to their 2008 show Very Small Business – isn’t about small business at all. I resigned myself to experiencing none of my favourite on-screen representations small business-isms – including when business owners smoke inside because hey, it’s their shop (like in Hearts Beat Loud, a new American film out this week) or when they harangue their customers because of various petty grievances (as in Fawlty Towers).
The very essence of the show’s ‘gee whiz’ approach observes younger people through the lens of ‘crazy things young people do’.
In the lead role Wayne Hope has a Rob Sitch-ian way about him, flustered and incredulous, trying to steer sinking ships. Like Sitch’s characters in Utopia and The Hollowmen, Don – either semi-competent or semi-incompetent depending which way you spin it – is a wannabe dealmaker hamstrung by the system. Brutally sincere or painfully glib depending on the situation, he keeps talking when everybody wants him to shut up and shuts up on the rare occasions that people want him to keep talking.
Like recent locally-made comedies Sando, Squinters, No Activity and the Channel Ten pilot Dave (about the comedian Dave O’Neil), Back in Very Small Business – which was directed by Butler – has a relaxed attitude towards plot, which places heavy emphasis on dialogue and characterization. These characters tend to be basic archetypes: the dorky accountant, the dithering aging receptionist, the party girl social media expert, the begrudging intern.
The chit-chat approach worked with Squinters and No Activity because they launched Seinfeldian concepts (although many of the plots in Seinfeld – particularly during the later seasons – are wonderfully shrewd and inventive) but it’s less effective here. The dialogue in Back in Very Small Business is neither full of flair nor comically engaging in its detail.
Much of the comedy arises from the perspective of an older generation, bemused by what they see, observing the new. When Sam asks Ray to write “an Expedia blog post” for an Instagram celebrity, he responds dryly: “I didn’t understand anything in that sentence.” When Sam asks Don how many social media followers he has, the boss answers: “Twelve. Well, that’s how many Jesus had when he started out!”
One element of the narrative – which evolves across numerous episodes rather than the stand-alone, half hour sit-com format – concerns Ray’s trans son Leslie (Roman Hadley-Lund, who began his medical transition in 2016 after identifying as trans in 2012). From the moment Leslie walks into the office, with Don balking at the idea of examining his chest hair, this tangent never quite sits right.
The very essence of the show’s ‘gee whiz’ approach observes younger people through the lens of ‘crazy things young people do’. When applied to Leslie this is problematic for obvious reasons. ABC TV’s hiring of an actual trans actor is commendable, but the writers’ motivations for creating the character in the first place are nebulous at best.
So too is the morality – or lack thereof – of the protagonist. Instead of encouraging his son to develop his skills as a musician, Don berates him for having a “bong-addled brain.” When he is almost caught having sex with a business owner and married woman, Don speaks in double entendre, boasting to her husband that he is the woman’s “main supplier.” In both instances the bad behavior of the person could be excused if it resulted in funny moments for the viewer. In both instances, it doesn’t.
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