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
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