TV Review Mad as Hell

TV Review Shaun Micallef

Shaun Micallef’s return to television last night was a double triumph: Mad As Hell screened on the ABC at 8pm and Mr & Mrs Murder debuted on Ten at 8.30. This allayed fears that a ratings war between the channels might result in having to choose between the two programs.

It was especially gratifying to see Mad As Hell as it fills part of that yawning gap in Australian TV that should be signposted ‘intelligent political satire’. Once we were rich in such programs, with The Gillies Report the gold standard for searing commentary. Now Australian TV satirists are a rare breed: satiris australis, we could call them, almost as extinct as the thylacine, once the fierce predator that stalked our airwaves, now, like The Project, a tamed and glossy housepet.

To get a flavour of the fearless ‘80s, go to Youtube and just search for it: there are extracts there that make me nostalgic for TV that was actually angry— buoyantly and exhilaratingly so. In a series of fabulous extracts that you can find if you look carefully, Wendy Harmer and a brilliant cast did a Brechtian pastiche that excoriated Neville Wran’s NSW; for me it was a pinnacle of Australian TV that demonstrated the vigorous importance of an ABC that was as yet ungelded and unimpoverished. Watch it and ask yourself what might be said today if support for satire were as staunch today as it was 30 years ago, even in an atmosphere of rampant political corruption.

Things are so very different today: paradoxical things have happened to our polity with the advent of the internet opening up our avenues of information even as media ownership has concentrated in the hands of a couple of right-wing tycoons.In this atmosphere, the brave venture of Ben Elton’s Live on Planet Earth three years ago was doomed precisely because it offended the powerful. Excoriated by the Murdoch press (it screened on Nine, a rival network) its ratings fell and Nine’s management suffered from a terminal loss of nerve, axing it after only three airings.

Shaun Micallef has moved therefore into a satirical wasteland; anything he does, however small, is respite from the dearth. The only thing that bears any resemblance to what Micallef is doing comes in a five minute spot once a week after The 7.30 Report when John Clarke and Brian Dawe, the former a sole survivor of the braver and more outré era of The Gillies Report, are grudging allowed an outlet, and seem to be at constant threat of being put out to pasture.

So Micallef carries a lot of hope with him as he quips and nips cheekily at the hand that feeds him, averring that the opening credits for the first series were so expensive that the only reason ABC gave him a second series was to amortise the cost. But that is actually the start of a deeper probe into the body politic that, although more muted and subtle than Gillies’ full-on attacks, is thought-provoking and possessed of the same secure moral focus. After some opening persiflage that establishes the show’s laughs as fair-dinkum (in front of a live audience, not with a laugh-track) he goes on to say that two aspects of public life have saddened rather than angered him, but that the title Shaun Micallef: Melancholic as Hamlet won’t be possible since the current title sequence cost so much to produce.

The two aspects he mentions are sports heroes and politicians, both groups ‘taking stuff they shouldn’t’. Lance Armstrong and the Essendon logo flash up along with some politicians under investigation. These are heartening signs: Micallef is aiming at fairly hard targets, not just shooting fish in a barrel like Ten’s The Project as it pokes careful genial fun at homophobia and treats politicians like loveable bunnies, being adolescently flirty-cheeky with the likes of Hockey, Abbott, Gillard and Rudd instead of satisfyingly angry.

Micallef in this early foray in the second series is treading a little carefully and who can blame him? At least he is allowing a negative emotion, (sadness) to enter the conversation. It is to be hoped that the generous courage of anger will drive the humour as the program picks up viewers. It needs, indeed deserves, a huge and loyal audience to make Micallef axe-proof: he has shown he has a moral perspective that deserves our trust. He challenges us to think deeply and question ourselves as well as our corporate and political masters. ‘Are We Driven By Self-Interest Across A Sea Of Shifting Sands?’ is the title of his faux-write-in ‘competition’.

Micallef’s other project, Mr & Mrs Murder, is another matter entirely. Intelligent, warm and funny crime comedy/drama, it engaged us all last night at its premier airing on Channel Ten. Watch it: it is a little oasis in a dreary desert of awful reality shows, boring US dramas (I cannot sit through even 10 minutes of The Good Wife without suddenly realising I have another more urgent engagement, such as waxing the lawn or weeding the car), and tooth-grindingly terrible current affairs (revamped Today Tonight, anyone?) and endless repeats of Big Bang Theory.

Mr & Mrs Murder’s plots, set in Melbourne, revolve around Micallef and Kat Stewart as Charlie and Nicola Buchanan, crime-scene cleaners and amateur detectives. It’s pleasant and engaging, and the story all hangs together without too much need for the suspension of disbelief. Definitely a must-watch in our house, without anything much in the way of competition.

So until our screens fill with a flowering of intelligent humour and scorching satire, there will be books to read, Scrabble or 500 to play and dogs to walk. And in the meantime Micallef, Doyle and Dawe are going to be satire’s only representatives in Australia, the pleasant refuge of the intelligent viewer, his strongly held and ethical world-view a stimulus to our own opinions. Almost, you might say, unapologetic apologetics.

Let’s hope he can get away with it all. The court jester was always immune from charges of lèse-majesté because he spoke humane truth to power. Predators keep the environment healthy by culling the diseased and the unfit: satiris australis will keep our body politic healthy if we don’t geld it or shoot it down if it offends us. We have to be able to take a joke, otherwise we end up like Ancient Rome, only able to laugh at victims, scapegoats and outcasts. We already are in danger of this with reality shows, with their jaw-droppingly brutal Schadenfreude as hapless auditionees and carefully straw-manned reality tv villains and fallguys are shot down and booted out while we’re expected to boo and hiss them and cheer their defeat. It’s a moral hazard that good satire protects us against: the kind of discourse encouraged by the likes of Clarke and Micallef inoculates us against simplistic mob mentality. Complex thinking can lead us to simple goodness when we have the right kind of guide.

Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.