Back in Very Small Business review: ABC TV’s so-so narrative comedy light on laughs

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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7 responses to “Back in Very Small Business review: ABC TV’s so-so narrative comedy light on laughs

  1. This is a modern Australian comedy gem. Following the very funny 2008 Season of Back in Business, “Back in” builds on the wonderful charterers and delivers some interesting new ones. In addition to its wonderful humour this show has plenty of pathos injected into its narrative. In the original season, Wayne Hope’s Character Don Angel in his desperate attempt to succeed in business has totally failed his children ( and marriage) to the point of child abuse. Cleverly in “Back In” we see the development of his daughter now a 20 something millennial who now works for Don and is every bit as deceitful, duplicitous and obsessed with the business as Don is. You suspect all in the hope of dad’s approval. The son Alex with very little interest in the business (and anything else save maybe a music career) is a total disappointment to Don. Somehow the show is able to deliver humour every episode despite this backdrop. Kim Gyngell’s poignant character Ray form the first season is a little happier but has his now transitioning Son work for the company. Brilliant! Look i really love this sort of real, relatable and familiar Australian comedy ( like Upper Middle Bogan) and this season was as solid as the the first season and may still have some life in it for season 3 by 2028! Ha!

  2. I love it. Every moment. I love the chaos and the cringeworthy situations Don Angel has brought on himself and his employees. I love the fact that although no person with a brain would stay more than a day workinv for this man, all the workers take their job ever so seriously and try their best at every moment to sell utter rubbish and please an idiot. Robyn Nevin is totally remarkable. This amazing actress who can shuffle between stage and screen and director of Qld Theatre Company to mention few roles play everyones dismissed Aunt. She is a treasure but Hope and Gyngell are shining stars. I can only imzgind the fun and pleasure the cast get from working together and id love to be a fly on the wall and see the out takes. I only looked it up to see wbat zwards it had won and xtumbled upon this reveiw. The line including the real thing ooh mow moo mow mow reminded me of my funniest friends. The delivery was absolutely perfect. I do t know how he did it without breaking up .

  3. Hi Luke

    It’s evident you have written this article without actually watching the show without due diligence. I know BS when I read it, but also appreciate you’re probably tied down in how much time you can devote to everything you review.

    Someone commented ‘it is a pity you haven’t watched the first series’; the first serious was interesting in it tried something different, (being a little off the wall) but I reckon it got bogged down in semantics without much room to develop. The second series has taken on many more characters which is possibly why you are finding it hard to fathom the title against the actual premise of the show.

    And Robyn Nevin; her character is boring as bat shit but she makes the show a masterpiece. And I have only just realized the actor playing Ashley was in the Netflix Santa Clarita Diet

  4. Seriously Luke? The title is “Very Small Business” so you expected lame jokes about owners smoking in their shop? Good Grief.
    The pathos generated by Kim Gyngell’s character and his relationships is beyond excellent. The false confidence of Wayne Hope’s intimately vulnerable character was great to watch.
    This show had me laughing and crying and cringing all in one.

    This is an excellent, excellent series.

    I’m not actually sure you watched it, Luke.

  5. Whist not wishing to comment on something I haven’t viewed, the first showing of this series “Very Small Business” did have some quirky funny moments. I was looking forward to catching up with this new version, however after reading a rather strange review in a popular green tv guide- where it was nominated as “Pick of the Week” and then shitcanned as being a heap of crap! – I didn’t bother watching it on the night but will check it out it online.

  6. Hey Luke.

    Too bad you missed the original Very Small Busines. Way funnier and fresher. Wayne was also writing and starring Librariams at rhe same time.
    BTW I’d stillrather watch this than unfunny American stcoms

  7. Is it my imagination, or does all Australian comedy now consist of people just randomly swearing? And why do all the actors in Australian sitcoms act like they are in a European art-house movie, where everyone looks and sounds as morose as possible? And what’s with all the shouting? Shouting your dialogue does not make you funnier, it just makes you look desperate to get a laugh.

    On the plus side, at least it wasn’t season 2 of Sando, which is the worst sitcom I’ve seen since Outland.

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