POL­ICY WITH A SHOT OF WRY

Utopia re­turns for sea­son three with more projects and of­fice mishaps to fur­ther de­mor­alise Rob Sitch’s in­creas­ingly hap­less Na­tion Build­ing Author­ity head

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Utopia,

It is a plea­sure to wel­come back Rob Sitch and his band of en­thu­si­as­tic young co­me­di­ans as Utopia re­turns this week for a third sea­son. It is from that in­de­fati­ga­ble pro­duc­tion com­pany Work­ing Dog, writ­ten and pro­duced by Sitch, Santo Ci­lauro and Tom Gleis­ner, and again directed by Sitch with tech­ni­cal dex­ter­ity and a kind of art­ful sim­plic­ity. The first episode of the new sea­son doesn’t dis­ap­point.

Set in­side the highly glazed gov­ern­ment of­fices of the Na­tion Build­ing Author­ity, a newly cre­ated gov­ern­ment author­ity re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects, in its nat­u­ral­is­tic way the show satir­i­cally dis­sects the anatomy of those huge debt-funded schemes that gov­ern­ments love an­nounc­ing with fan­fare in the name of na­tion-build­ing but in which they quickly lose in­ter­est.

And Sitch’s Tony Wood­ford, an ex­pe­ri­enced project man­ager with years in the pri­vate sec­tor who was head­hunted to head up the NBA, is con­stantly un­der stress­ful ha­rass­ment from the gov­ern­ment of the day to come up with ever more ideas that cer­tainly will have no life past their ini­tial an­nounce­ment.

At the end of sea­son two, af­ter 11 months in the job, his dis­il­lu­sion­ment was grow­ing, his shoul­ders slumped, his sense of dis­ap­point­ment in those around him ev­i­dent as his masters pushed him for even more grandiose projects to be de­vel­oped only to the point of procla­ma­tion. Most were in fact merely mod­el­ling ex­er­cises turned into hastily an­nounced schemes that be­came mon­sters based on pro­cesses no one could rea­son­ably un­der­stand.

As the cre­ators say in a pro­duc­tion note, Utopia is “a trib­ute to those po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who have some­how man­aged to take a long-term vi­sion and use it for short-term gain”. The se­ries is clev­erly con­ceived — as was the ear­lier The Hol­low­men — in such a way as to be of in­ter­est to view­ers hold­ing a wide range of po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives.

Across its two sea­sons so far it of­ten has been too close to re­al­ity to be re­ally laugh-out-loud funny — wry gri­maces rather than guf­faws — as Tony and his team have looked at the fea­si­bil­ity of build­ing a Very Fast Train, the cre­ation of a Na­tional Fruit Bowl and a project for ex­pand­ing north­ern Aus­tralia’s Ord River Scheme, among other gov­ern­ment con­cepts, and even be­came part of the ac­ci­den­tal launch of Aus­tralia’s first space pro­gram.

The real trick of the show, though, is the way that through­out the se­ries so far Tony and his of­fice col­leagues have to deal earnestly with not only prob­lem­atic ex­cur­sions into ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture con­cerns but also with the com­pli­ca­tions of a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect of­fice. Sitch calls it “an of­fice be­sieged by ab­sur­di­ties”, and this is where the big­ger laughs come. The long-suf­fer­ing Tony has had to con­tend with work­ing par­ties so large that his of­fice ran out of chairs, a de­ci­sion to run a Healthy Choices of the Month in the of­fice and a bizarre cor­po­rate train­ing course to im­prove cre­ativ­ity, to say noth­ing of end­less prob­lems with the of­fice printer.

Sitch and co al­ways have had a keenly de­vel­oped sense that laugh­ter is of­ten pro­duced through the jux­ta­po­si­tion of in­con­gru­ous el­e­ments and in Utopia much of the hu­mour is de­rived from the con­trast be­tween the rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent worlds of the right­eous bu­reau­cratic spend­ing of mil­lions on white ele­phants and the minu­tiae of workplace be­hav­iour.

This sea­son on the macro front there are yet more de­fence white pa­pers to deal with; a new air­port link is mooted (this cer­tainly mir­rors re­al­ity a lit­tle too dis­turbingly); the gov­ern­ment wants ad­vice on en­ter­ing the world of start-ups; the NBA is asked for as­sis­tance with a prob­lem­plagued IT project; and Rob is the des­ig­nated key­note speaker at the Smart Cities con­fer­ence.

At the same time on the mi­cro level, risk and safety au­dits are dealt with in the of­fice; ran­dom tweets de­rail whole de­part­ments; there are ac­cu­sa­tions of bul­ly­ing; and the of­fice has to cope with some­one’s de­ci­sion to change all the bins. Then it’s de­cided a dig­i­tal up­grade would be a fine idea; Tony is forced to spend a night out­doors in the name of char­ity; he is even re­quired to un­dergo me­dia train­ing; while plans for a staff din­ner cre­ate ten­sions within the NBA of­fice. Then there’s the prob­lems raised by the ar­rival of a new couch and its un­in­tended con­se­quences.

The first episode, Blue Sky Think­ing, starts off in the show’s usual down-the-rab­bit-hole rush — Sitch is not a great one for te­dious ex­po­si­tion, pre­fer­ring to let us in on events along with the char­ac­ters while nar­ra­tive de­vel­ops around them — as NBA’s PR man­ager Rhonda Ste­wart (Kitty Flana­gan) busily or­gan­ises a photo shoot in Ku­nunurra at the eastern ex­trem­ity of the Kim­ber­ley re­gion.

She’s wran­gling a bunch of politi­cians, all dressed in iden­ti­cal mole­skins, cham­bray shirts and Akubras, to launch the NDAF, the North­ern Aus­tralian De­vel­op­ment Fund, hand­ing out gi­ant scis­sors for them to all cut the cel­e­bra­tory tape.

The Top End is now to be seen as the land of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties, the glam­orous TV com- mer­cial ac­com­pa­ny­ing the an­nounce­ment declar­ing that “True Blue Sky Think­ing”, with the right in­vest­ment, “Can Turn Red Dirt To Pay Dirt”. Tony is re­luc­tantly in at­ten­dance, his only con­tri­bu­tion to point out that li­ai­son of­fi­cer Jim Gib­son (An­thony Lehmann), the NBA’s in­ter­face with the gov­ern­ment, still has the la­bel for his new cham­bray shirt show­ing.

Six months later no in­vestors are to be seen, Rhonda’s “big win for the gov­ern­ment” a dis­as­ter. Tony is called on to cre­ate an NBA sound­ing board, an in­ter­me­di­ary group to help drum up and as­sist with the ap­pli­ca­tions from the pri­vate sec­tor and co-or­di­nate what­ever isn’t hap­pen­ing. Maybe a huge de­sali­na­tion plant is the an­swer, pipes go­ing north and south? But none of the many min­is­ters he tries to con­tact will pick up the phone in Can­berra — they’re all too busy with fun runs.

Mean­while, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Nat (Celia Pac­quola) — so de­ci­sive she’s a le­gend for her abil­ity to steer any project no mat­ter how ir­ra­tional — is mon­i­tor­ing a “sub­urb of the fu­ture” for Yal­darra Coun­cil, a mir­a­cle of cre­ativ­ity and sus­tain­abil­ity. But prob­lems of wheel­chair ac­cess emerge; there’s not enough di­ver­sity in the peo­ple fea­tured in the 3-D com­puter mock-up and a dog is shown with­out a lead; and the coun­cil ar­borist is adamant the pic­tured trees in the mooted de­sign lack “di­ver­sity of canopy”.

Then both projects are some­what stymied by the cre­ation of a reg­u­lar of­fice tal­ent quest to en­cour­age cor­po­rate team­work and staff mo­rale, Tony hav­ing aban­doned the staff book club be­cause “all those nov­els were tak­ing for­ever to read”.

The act­ing, un­der Sitch’s benev­o­lent di­rec­tion, is as al­ways spot-on, dis­ci­plined and finely tuned, the char­ac­ters quickly declar­ing and defin­ing them­selves with lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion for any viewer un­fa­mil­iar with their back­sto­ries. All are now to­tally at home with the Work­ing Dog highly nat­u­ral­is­tic style of comic act­ing, the pace faster than any con­ven­tional com­edy and lines de­liv­ered with few pauses. “You have to speak as fast as the thoughts oc­cur to you,” Sitch told me once. “You can’t sort of mull on it; and, of course, if you mull on it, it means you un­der­stand the words bet­ter than you should.”

It’s a great note for ac­tors, re­mind­ing one of the ex­as­per­ated di­rec­tor who shouted at a movie rookie: “Don’t just do some­thing — stand there.” Sitch is also a stick­ler for a crisp sound and clean dic­tion, be­liev­ing the ear needs to hear com­edy; if view­ers worry about what has just been said, it dies. “Com­edy,” he says, “is not a post­hu­mous act.”

Pac­quola stands out, as she usu­ally does these days, one of the crispest ac­tresses in the TV game; Flana­gan does a kind of zany dead­pan as ac­com­plished as any by any­one around and is sim­ply adorable; and Nina Oyama’s re­cep­tion­ist Court­ney Kano and Emma-Louise Wil­son’s per­sonal as­sis­tant are lovely cre­ations. As is Sitch’s Tony, his ded­i­ca­tion and pa­tience tested even more thor­oughly this time around, a touch of Tony Han­cock’s sag­ging melan­choly creep­ing into the per­for­mance, poised so del­i­cately be­tween pathos and mer­ri­ment. Wed­nes­day, 9pm, ABC.

Celia Pac­quola as the de­ci­sive chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Nat

Rob Sitch as the ha­rassed Tony Wood­ford in ABC’s Utopia

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