ALL IN THE FAMILY
A so-called ethnic comedy recalls the golden days of sitcoms in Australia
Adecade or so ago, when I first started reviewing, comedy was all over free-to-air television, enthusiastically promoted by a new generation of programmers who had not experienced the career disaster a comedy series can turn out to be.
TV was suddenly full of ensembles of young performers overacting in pursuit of a humorous release (what psychologists call laughs). It all faded rapidly, though some of the comics, including Charlie Pickering, Chris Lilley and Amanda Keller, have reinvented themselves.
The local sitcom had faded when Gary Reilly’s Hey Dad..! expired a decade earlier, along with the equally broad Acropolis Now. Though Kath & Kim returned to the Seven Network in 2007, the characters had been born in 1994 in the groundbreaking Big Girl’s Blouse, a series full of celebrity cameos, mispronunciations, marital problems and cosmetic surgery.
The first episode of Kath & Kim’s fourth season, screened in 2007, attracted an Australian audience of more than 2.5 million nationally, the highest ratings for a first episode in the history of Australian TV. But there have been fewer and fewer laughs since then, as the reality TV juggernaut steamrolls everything in its path.
So it is a rare delight to catch up with Here Come the Habibs, so cannily launched and promoted by the Nine Network. It’s original programming that has attracted a huge audience, and made its over-the-top characters instantly recognisable across Australia. There was controversy before it started — “30 minutes of racism,” some suggested, after watching the trailer — and Nine bosses readily admitted it was a gamble, given the dire success rate of local sitcoms on the free-to-air networks.
The comic premise is simple: the workingclass Lebanese Habib family moves into a ritzy Sydney waterside suburb next to a wealthy Anglo family, the O’Neills, after pig-headed patriarch Fou Fou (Michael Denkha), a dodgy builder of carports, wins the lottery. Olivia O’Neill (Helen Dallimore) is determined to drive the Habibs from her world, and enlists her ineffectual husband Jack (Darren Gilshenan) to help. Daughter Madison (Georgia Flood) doesn’t think the Habibs are that bad, especially the youngest son. That’s basically it — set-up, feed and tag, as comedians say.
Yes, it’s broad comedy full of racial stereo- types, caricatures (though the best ones are at the expense of the uppity Anglos), bad taste, low-end vulgarity and dumb jokes, and it’s easy to be a little stupefied by the relentlessness of it all, though the Arabic dance music is great fun and rhythmically ties together what is essentially a series of short sketches.
The acting is all over the shop. The Anglo whites seem to have stepped straight from a local repertory version of a Noel Coward play — arch, stilted and camp — with even the usually reliable Gilshenan appearing ill at ease. Though the Habibs represent at least a dozen different acting traditions, under Peter Ashton’s direction, it hangs together amiably — this is a show with a big heart — and it’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny as it takes the mickey, especially out of Western society’s fear of Arab immigrant culture. Our ability to laugh at ourselves, wherever we come from, has always been a defining part of our comedy.
The show has been compared with Paul Fenech’s Housos, another so-called ethnic comedy, but Fenech is a far more ambitious filmmaker, his style segueing between slapstick and satire, broad-based character comedy, action-movie parody and completely ridiculous but surprisingly well-staged stunts. The Habibs is far more hospitable and welcoming as a comedy, less abrasive and never seriously confronting, though like the figures in Fenech’s hard-scrabble world, its characters are always intensely loyal and protective of their families and communities. Where Fenech really pushes boundaries, the creators of this new show are content to rely on a classical formula and, yes, a lot of old jokes.
Reilly, who also co-wrote the long-running Kingswood Country so successful in the early 1980s, once told me that doing situation comedies for TV is like writing successful pop songs. “The genre has a matrix to it — do’s and don’ts — especially in orthodox sitcoms. The core of the classic show is, normally, the same people struggling with the travails of bringing up a family, trying to make their way in the world while everyone else gets in their way, a classic stooge rock-on comic character who brings jokes onstage with him, and three or four other characters, each clearly demarcated with their own spaces. And at the end of the day the sitcom always ends up where it started — no character ever learns anything.” Which is certainly the case with The Habibs, which is settling nicely into what hopefully is the first of many seasons. Coming to us as if from a parallel universe is 11.22.63, the new JJ Abrams eight-part series, an absorbing time-travel mystery thriller adapted from the 2012 bestselling Stephen King novel. The pilot, The Rabbit Hole, is probably the most thought-provoking since the first episode of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers in 2014. There’s a similar meditative and melancholy quality but it’s also volatile and tense, with those extravagant Kingian scareyou-to-death moments. Abrams ( Lost and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is co-executive producer with King and the showrunner is Bridget Carpenter from that fine series Friday Night Lights. King was delighted when Abrams proposed a TV adaptation. “[With] movies — with a long book it’s like trying to sit on a suitcase and get everything inside,” King said. “I love TV because it gives you a bit of room.”
James Franco, practically at the centre of every scene, is Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. He is given the power to change history when he’s drafted by his ageing mentor, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), proprietor of a local diner and dying of lung cancer, into using a hidden time portal in his cafe to 1960 to stop the JFK assassination, a mission to which the older man has been committed for some years.
Al is a repository of facts, theories and Kennedy conspiracies, obsessed with the so-called “butterfly effect” — the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.
He calls the portal his “rabbit hole”, and like Lewis Carroll’s, it proves to be a long and winding path with many surreal connections and offshoots. It leads directly to October 11, 1960, and there are strict rules about the way it can be used. No matter how long someone stays in the past — hours, days, weeks or years — only two minutes elapse in the present. And while past events can be changed, subsequent use of the portal “resets” the timeline and nullifies all changes made on the previous excursion.
But, Al warns his initially disbelieving protege, the past is obdurate and doesn’t want to change and throws up obstacles to prevent history being altered: “If you do something that f..ks with the past, the past f..ks with you.”
Reluctantly, Jake, played with intense conviction by the talented Franco, undertakes the uncompleted mission. He is already a burnedout young man, disillusioned with life and love, and quickly becomes fascinated by the past he encounters, despite characters constantly telling him he doesn’t belong there.
Disappearing into a Technicolor Happy Days past where the food tastes better than the massproduced present, he understands that before he can alter history he has to know what actually occurred, and he’s quickly on the campaign trail with Kennedy, Sinatra providing the soundtrack: “Everyone wants to back Jack, because he’s on the right track.” Inevitably, Jake finds a life in the past that becomes more important to him than the empty personal life he has in the present.
It’s a hugely entertaining what-if? story, with the first episode written by Carpenter and directed with great panache and the right sense of sinister dread by Kevin Macdonald ( The Last King of Scotland), and it will have you watching intently over the next seven weeks as each episode is released.
Tuesday, Nine, 8.30pm. streaming on Stan.
The Habibs challenges viewers to laugh at themselves, left; James Franco and Chris Cooper in 11.22.63, below