Graeme Blundell gets a tiny bit political
One series is set in the White House, the other in Australia, but both hit a nerve
ARE we really dumb, drunk and racist? Why do so many of India’s 1.2 billion people think we delight in bashing their countrymen — especially taxi drivers — insulting their visiting students and trashing their religions? Why do the country’s thousands of call centres train their operators to talk slowly because they believe Australians are so stupid? Why did the lucrative industry of educating India’s young people in this country collapse so dramatically in 2009?
These are some of the questions behind the a road trip for three weeks in a white minivan to examine our worse stereotypes and to discover whether it’s just a case of cultural misunderstanding; that we are really lovable larrikins who just like saying f . . k a lot.
It’s another clever variation on the reality television format, kind of like Big Brother in a bus. I love watching the coming together of genres and formats, and this new short series is fun in its slightly ramshackle way. It is a mix of fly-on-the-wall documentary, travel program and tabloid current affairs show dealing with the politics of national identity, held together which also gave us the award-winning Go Back to Where You Came From, it’s conceptually the inverse of that series, although essentially another version of through-the-mirror TV.
It is directed by Aaron Smith, who did such an inventive job of Myf Warhurst’s Nice for the ABC (which I wrote about last week), and produced by Anita Jorgensen, who somehow wrangled what she calls a ‘‘ let’s just drive and see what we get’’ factual documentary.
After advertising for participants, Go Back to Where You Came From chose six people of different political views to retrace the journeys taken by political refugees to reach Australia. They had no idea what awaited them as, deprived of their wallets, passports and mobile phones, they travelled to some of the most desperate corners of the world, even boarding a leaky refugee boat that almost sank and enduring a mid-ocean rescue.
Hildebrand and his camera crew and producer travelled to India to collect his subjects, who were found using several casting agencies. They were brought to Australia and plonked in various cultural hot spots.
Gurmeet Chaudhary is 26, a journalist and newsreader for 24-hour network Day & Night News, and like so many of his countrymen and women was shocked by the negative stories that appeared in the Indian press during 2009. Call centre worker Mahima Bhardwaj, before joining the group, takes Hildebrand through her scary, confronting and extraordinarily profane encounters with Aussies over the phone. They are inadvertently quite hysterical and with such a degree of racism they appear invented by a satirist, but aren’t. (Jorgensen says at least these encounters have taught Indians how to swear.)
Then there’s Amer Singh, a third-year law student who once thought of studying in Sydney but after the many stories about young Indians being assaulted and killed in Australia was pressured by his family to remain at home. Completing this quartet of articulate Indians is the more mature and elegant Radhika Budhwar, a trainer on cultural sensitivity and conflict management for multinational organisations. A practising Buddhist, she also holds a masters degree in English and a postgraduate qualification in guidance and counselling, and looks as if she has just stepped off a Bollywood sound stage.
The first episode introduces them and Hildebrand quickly hustles them off to Sydney, after telling them they’ve been chosen because they have all been exposed to certain stereotypes. He welcomes them to the Harbour City with some gentle wit. ‘‘ You guys are used to places that have traffic congestion, with winding streets that don’t lead anywhere [and] trains that don’t work or run on time, so basically you’re going to feel right at home.’’
Then, a little predictably, there are droll excursions on the harbour and to Bondi Beach, but the show picks up speed when the Indian chaps are introduced to a provocative mural plastered on an inner-city wall. ‘‘ Say no to burqas’’, it says. It was painted by Sergio Redegalli, a self-appointed crusader against political correctness who seems to delight in inflaming argument. As the discussion ensues, a hard-looking bloke appears from behind a lamppost, a Muslim who sprays the most profane language at the group as he attacks the obdurate Redegalli. (As Jorgensen says, whenever racism is raised in Australia, ‘‘ there’s a lot of cursing and a lot of anger’’.)
It’s a searing and confronting set piece, and more follow in future episodes as Hildebrand takes the newcomers to Lakemba, a Sydney suburb with a predominantly Muslim population, and to Cronulla beach, site of the infamous 2005 riots. More arguments flare as he transports them to Villawood Detention Centre before taking them to Melbourne, where the attacks on Indian students took
of their countrymen who believe Aboriginal people are mistreated in Australia are correct. As was the case with Go Back to Where You
Came From, the producers work diligently to present a microcosm of this many-sided and often acrimonious debate. They present a compressed body of ideas that can be observed in a small group of people willing to be wrangled into this kind of experience. And like the much larger-scale series, it’s a fascinating social experiment, following and capturing a set of artificial situations, carefully modelled on real ones.
It’s yet another variation on what’s sometimes called the ‘‘ life intervention’’ format of recent reality TV shows that seemingly attempt to help us overcome obstacles in our personal, professional and domestic lives. In this case, it’s perceived xenophobia, rather than how to lose weight or how manage our children better. The notion of TV as social worker may be anathema to some but it continues to provide great entertainment.
Hildebrand is a good choice to present these ideas because, no ideologue, he never allows you to know just how seriously interested he is in any of them. Professionally, he basically takes the piss out of people and ideas, calling it as he sees it. He’s not really regarded as a serious cultural or political commentator but talks to a large mainstream audience through his columns in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (published by News Limited, publisher of The
He’s populist and contrarian, often both rightist and leftist at the same time. Occasionally he misses the mark completely and
IT’S A VERSION OF THROUGH-THEMIRROR TV
Minister meets Larry Sanders’’, it’s almost impossible to separate reality from satire in
The Thick of It. Sometimes it seems so real you can’t help but gasp in astonishment before an attack of the guffaws.
Starring Peter Capaldi as foul-mouthed political spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (based loosely on Tony Blair’s right-hand man Alastair Campbell), the show — a new series is in preproduction — pillories the inner workings of modern British government, highlighting the struggles of the media and spin doctors against civil servants. The character of Tucker has achieved cult status, his incandescent rants, monologues of glorious invective, on display on YouTube.
With Veep, Iannucci and his team of British writers mosey into the offices and committee rooms of Washington, DC, following the whirlwind day-to-day mishaps and minor victories of the new US vice-president, former senator Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus). Hers is a life built around the paradox of the political position she occupies and the supposed power it carries: it’s all there, yet it’s not.
She is so close and so far, so powerful yet so restrained and inhibited. Iannucci says the comedy comes from the tantalising frustration and sheer unpredictability. ‘‘ What have I been missing here?’’ she asks, visiting an old Senate colleague (the very sharp Kate Burton). Power,’’ comes the reply. Policy is hardly ever on the agenda, though Meyer is working on a green jobs initiative that will push to replace ‘‘ dirty’’ plastics with clean, corn starch-based replacements.
Meyer’s existence is all about saving face in a political environment where even the most banal decision, such as determining the right frozen yoghurt for a photo opportunity (Jamaican rum is simply too ‘‘ unexpected, funky, kind of sexual’’) can have catastrophic consequences.
The Veep is surrounded by chief of staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), press secretary Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) and Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), who is her hovering, constantly intrusive ‘‘ body man’’, keeping her on song and providing the hand sanitiser. Meyer is fond of saying ‘‘ the level of incompetence in this office is staggering’’.
As you may expect from Iannucci, this is comedy that thrives on a constant diet of insult, repartee and ridicule.
Nearly every line is full of abuse of some kind or other, but delivered with an ambiguous, straight-faced mixture of antagonism and good fellowship. And, like the British sometimes he is spot-on. He’s as likely to satirise fellow columnist Miranda Devine as he is Julia Gillard. Reading him, I’m sometimes reminded of pugnacious American comic George Carlin’s line that, ‘‘ Comedy is a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression; that is what comics do, stand the world upside down.’’
Hildebrand, still in his mid-30s, spends his days mocking those who claim authority and poking fun at the political system, race relations, gender issues and prevailing standards and taboos in everyday life. He’s a prankster rather than a pundit and there’s ‘‘ something a bit late-1960s about him, a whiff of the counterculture. But then, as we used to say, scratch a hippie and you’ll find a thought policeman.
Still, he is always clever and unpredictable in his increasingly frequent TV panel appearances on the ABC’s Q& A, and on Sky News’
The Paul Murray Show he cuts through ideological cant and raises interesting questions in his dishevelled, quizzical way.
This new series should be the start of an entertaining run of argumentative shows, hopefully fronted by a disarming guy who shows that not all ABC types wear sandals, drink green tea and congest Sydney’s cycle lanes, as is often claimed.
T HE humour is far more polished in
Veep, the totally brilliant new HBO
comedy starring Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It was created by Armando Iannucci as a kind of American spin-off from his wonderful series
The Thick of It; if you like political satire delivered with frightening real-life profanity and Machiavellian skulduggery you have to kind of almost manic comedy has to be instinctual. Louis-Dreyfus obviously thrives on this approach and many of her moments seem improvised.
She has a fastidious way of shaping a sentence which, once constructed, is often dismantled by a panicked, almost syncopated stutter a little reminiscent of Jack Lemmon’s delivery — a giddy vocal fluttering that emerges when things don’t go just right.
At times there is also a similar sort of manic borderline-pathetic style, though she tosses off the ‘‘ F-bomb’’ with wonderful fluency. She really is a clown of distinction, adept at exploiting her own foibles and inadequacies.
Dumb, Drunk & Racist, Wednesday, 9.30pm, ABC2.
Veep, from Sunday, June 24, 7.30pm, Showcase.
SECOND THOUGHTS . . .
I’VE been trying to catch up with the new FX channel on Foxtel but so far have only caught random episodes of some of the shows. I’m knocked out by The Kill Point, although furious that I’ve caught it twice now out of sequence.
The Kill Point is an eight-hour series centred on a bank robbery, committed by a team of masked Iraq war veterans, that goes wrong. More than a dozen hostages from all walks of life are taken, ranging from the daughter of a business tycoon to an adulterous couple.
As the volatile soldiers plot their way out, the negotiator, Horst Cali, played by a tough determined Donnie Wahlberg, tries to anticipate the moves of leader Mr Wolf, the brilliant John Leguizamo, in a wonderful duel of testosterone-driven wits. Think Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.
Then there’s Justified, based on one of the great crime writer Elmore Leonard’s favourite characters. Raylan Givens, played insouciantly by Timothy Olyphant, is a one-time coalminer who is back in Harlan County, Kentucky, as a deputy US marshal. His unconventional justice enforcement makes him a target for criminals and a problem for his superiors.
This series settles down into a wonderful witches’ brew of old west and contemporary law enforcement with all of Leonard’s wonderful weirdness (he’s also executive producer) and black comedy — that almost surreal dialogue and the gently sardonic amusement at all things criminal.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer
Singh, Bhardwaj, Hildebrand, Budhwar and Chaudhary in Dumb, Drunk and Racist