Graeme Blundell gets a tiny bit po­lit­i­cal

One se­ries is set in the White House, the other in Aus­tralia, but both hit a nerve

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blundell

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

Week­end Aus­tralian).

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

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