New six-part sitcom The Family Law is being marketing by SBS with the tagline “Meet the Law family, a family like no other.” But its characters are generally stereotypes, however lovingly they may have been drawn from real life (the show was loosely based on Benjamin Law’s memoir of the same name, adapted by Law himself and co-writer Marieke Hardy).
The Chinese-Australian family of seven at the heart of it includes a dad (Anthony Brandon Wong) who is stingy with money, a brother (George Zhao) interested in little other than girls or music and – imperative to the comedy – a potty-mouthed mother (Fiona Choi) with no filter between brain and mouth.
The Family Law is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Ben (Trystan Go), an excitable little fellow who has a Charlie Brown way about him: eager to please but never quite certain how to go about it. Like Brown his sadness is never very far from the surface, but mostly Ben’s mishaps are played for laughs. The plots (this review is based on the first three episodes) hinge on events so familiar they feel quaint: a birthday party, an end-of-year school talent show, a trip to an animal sanctuary.
It is set in the Sunshine Coast, the opening shot of a sunny beach that turns out to be a painting in a Chinese restaurant. Really it could have been based virtually anywhere. For the dramatic elements, which revolve around issues as universal as marriage problems, to work the characters need to be ordinary people going about day-to-day activities.
What that tag-line really means: “Meet the Law family, the kind rarely seen on our screens.” The show’s marketable point of difference is not plot or situations but the ethnicity of its characters, and their fresh perspectives may play a part in why the writers rarely give the impression they are aspiring towards original ideas or dilemmas.
The Family Law continues an emerging voice of Chinese-Australian stories. On this front cinema is a little more advanced than television, with a handful of films since the mid-90s including Floating Life, The Homesong Stories, Mao’s Last Dancer and most recently another coming of age comedy, Sucker.
The latter, inspired by the upbringing of comedian Lawrence Leung, bears similarities to the sort-of-real but mostly not vibe of The Family Law, which feels a little like fan fiction written by the same person it’s about.
Both reinvent the adolescent years of a likable Chinese-Australian personality and explore puberty from the perspective of a youngster aspiring to achieve fame or notoriety, or simply to impress people, with a kosher approach more earnest than showy. Both even shoehorn their real-life inspirations in for cameo appearances.
While Sucker was clearly pitched to viewers roughly the same age as its protagonist, there are signs from the start that The Family Law is mixing audiences or two-minded about who they ought to be in the first place. Jenny (Choi) recounts the story of Ben’s birth, saying the pain felt like “stab stab stab right into mummy’s vi vi.” Then she compares the experience to a lemon coming out of a penis.
It’s a funny and arresting opener, but also adult jokes front-loaded onto a series that more closely resembles The Peanuts Movie than the dysfunctional indie dramedy director Jonathan Brough (It’s a Date, Sammy J & Randy Ricketts Lane) at times seems to be going for. The key word is in the title, family. The trials and tribulations of a clarinet playing pipsqueak who dresses up like a watermelon for a talent comp will by and large play better for young viewers.
There are occasional laugh-out-loud moments and the cast are uniformly strong. Trystan Go — with his droopy eyes and hangdog look — is a particularly good fit and Brough brings a polished visual style. One episode kicks off playfully, with characters announcing grievances direct to cam before a cut reveals they are addressing a counsellor and not the audience. More outside-the-square touches like this would have helped the aesthetic come alive, give it a little extra pep and bounce.
The “family like no other” tag-line comes with a caveat in the show’s logline, which ends “yet they may also be disturbingly familiar.” These mixed messages – you haven’t met these people but OK, maybe you have – point to the core challenge of making a captivating comedy series about normal people living normal lives. The Family Law gives it a good crack, and has an amiable quality that many viewers will find endearing.