A so-called eth­nic com­edy re­calls the golden days of sit­coms in Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Here Come the Habibs, 11.22.63,

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

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