Enthusiastically touted as the first Australian sitcom in fifteen years, Channel 9’s highly promoted Here Come the Habibs has a lone comedic premise: that it was funded by both Screen Australia and Screen NSW.
That this ham-dripping, ham-fisted, clichéd minstrel show is the product of arts funding and Australian content quotas is unrelentingly funny. I was roaring with laughter – until I sat down to watch the first two episodes.
The Habibs of western Sydney win the lotto and move to the rizty eastern suburb of Vaucluse. Their blonde-haired, blue-eyed neighbours the O’Neills aren’t happy, as they were outbid for the property at auction (heartbreak over Sydney property prices being the only shred of authenticity in the show). Is that a clash of cultures and classes you see coming? Yes, the Cringe is back, baby: the kind that would see Olivia O’Neill immediately consult her dermatologist for fear of wrinkles.
The production is a sweeping ping-pong of visual-verbal tautology. To say that the dialogue drips with exposition is to take lyrical licence, as the dialogue simply is exposition, inevitably shortly compounded by a visual cliché. Each character performs their gag, then says it, although for variety they sometimes say their gag, and then perform it. It is a feat of sorts that the exposition is so complete that it seamlessly combines itself with the most fulsome stereotypes. ‘If they want a welcome box of salted caramel cronuts,’ the evil matriarch Olivia O’Neill tells before the opening credits, ‘they can forget it.’ [Cut to a singlet-clad Fou Fou Habib dancing in the fountain.]
Characters each carry the albatross of one trait and one prop, as though playing one of those theatre games where they cannot let go of it. Layla Habib has her vacuousness and her mobile phone. Toufic Habib has his toys and his idiocy. Olivia O’Neill has her supposedly withering glare, best shot standing in front of a large portrait of herself. Of the many remarkable aspects of the Habibs, that of the nine creators and writers who had a hand in it none of them appears to have raised it to question its dreadfulness, is boggling.
The female characters being particularly poorly drawn probably stems from the fact that the creative team are all men (and of those, only two are of Middle Eastern descent). Gender is no barrier to writing a good character, but a baseline of talent is required. The collective background of the creative team: a few short films, some multi-culti stand-up comedy, and Home and Away, is obvious in the exhausting style of strung together ten-second gags of boyish humour.
The male characters are forgettable pastiches, as if intimidated by omnipresent creator Tahir Bilgic, who lurks in the background of almost every scene as the sidekick taxi driver in the event that anyone doesn’t get the premise. Camilla Ah Kin as Mariam Habib gives a dignified performance, while Tyler De Nawi (Elias Habib) and Georgia Flood (Madison O’Neill), who form the predictable Romeo and Juliet storyline, show sufficient subtlety and grace in spite of the script. One of the best-known actors of the cast, Helen Dallimore (Olivia O’Neill) ought to be pensioned off for life after this performance.
Despite this, the production is slick, probably helped by its budget. While the producers were unable to tell me the funding received from Screen Australia (the permission of all parties, including Channel 9 was required), Screen NSW gave a production grant of $150,000, for an estimated production spend in NSW of $4,117,994. There’s nothing like state-funded attempted comedy to make you yearn for the earnestness of socialist realism.
Satire is a noble pursuit, but it requires both a worthwhile target and the ability to be satirical.
Though banging the nail into the plank with which to hit viewers over the head, the four Cronulla riots references in the opening two episodes are harmless enough. But the refugee cracks and allusions when the show was filmed in the considerable shadow of Aylan Kurdi? The boatload of Arabs in lifejackets on a flotilla to the yacht club is neither funny in the context of an irrelevant plot, nor the background of the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
It is particularly bizarre given that the rest of the social comment is so safe it is marked out in fluorescent witches hats. In a cash-carrying confrontation with the police, the Habibs are racially profiled and searched – but the misunderstanding is resolved, the cops are shown to be bumbling and stupid, and it turns out the blonde chick is the one who needs to be arrested for outstanding parking fines! The blinding safety displays a nihilism that says everyone and everything is dumb, without ever turning the gun on itself. But perhaps that’s too kind a reading for this brand of commercial television.
Surveying Australian culture in the late 1980s, Clive James, in noting that the cultural cringe had become a snarl, said that ‘in the forward rush of Australian confidence during Gough Whitlam’s period of government, when grants were handed out to anybody with enough creative imagination to ask for one, reason was often thrown into the back seat.’
The Bellovian desire to pen a grand narrative of modern Australia by way of sledgehammer continues apace. One of the most multicultural and egalitarian nations on earth grappling with its cultural landscape in the manner of wrestling entertainment is the most unpleasant of spectacles.
This multicultural cringe, where everyone is equally idiotic, deftly conceals that there is no grand Australian experience. But crude pantomime representations devalue art for its own sake. If everyone and everything is so dumb, why are we even here?
It’s foreseeable that much heat will be generated by Habibs, and rightly so. Art, it is said, helps us to understand who we are. But it can only find meaning if it is any good. Government-funded expositions of self-consciousness shouldn’t sit well with anyone. Watching a group of struggling actors agree to minstrel themselves for primetime exposure is not a portrait but a pockmark.
Here Come the Habibs holds up a mirror to Australia, and finds itself frying ants with the deflection of the sunlight.