Clicking with audiences: Web series and diverse representations.
It used to be that creating for online was a last resort for projects that failed to secure funding, or the medium where the weird went to be seen by an anonymous, murky few. But, as online spaces are legitimised, and as virality offers rewards financially and in terms of professional credibility, the web series has become a genre in its own right--one that big names want in on, a la Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, Web Therapy (starring Lisa Kudrow, Lily Tomlin and Minnie Driver) and the online musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. With the successes of web-to-TV series like Broad City, Burning Love and Drunk History in the US, online has proven itself a viable launching pad for the jump to commercial television--and Australian web series creators are feeling this pull, too.
There's no doubt that online is an attractive medium for both emerging and established creators. With low production costs, no commercial interests to appease and the luxury of immediate distribution, web series give writers creative autonomy to experiment with form and aesthetic. When given free rein, Australian screen producers embrace the absurd and take the kinds of risks we rarely get to see on television. Subject matters are niche because they can be, and the internet thrives on the esoteric--the weird will always find its audience online. Here, creators can discover the potential scope of their audience and answer the question, 'How many of my fellow weirdos are out there?' Yet, while many web series--like the US's The Annoying Orange --fit this description, online is also where those outside of the mainstream can find an audience. Series about women, people of colour and LGBTQIA folk are notoriously underrepresented on Australian television--deemed too fringe or commercially unviable--despite pulling huge audiences online. (1) The democratic nature of creating for online allows social demographics and trends, as well as public sentiment, to be more accurately represented.
MINISTER FOR MEN
Minister for Men, a 2015 series created for the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House, stars Australian author and TV host Gretel Killeen as the eponymous government minister. The concept satirises the role infamously held by former prime minister Tony Abbott, who appointed himself Minister for Women (a position now filled by then--assistant minister Michaelia Cash). The sketches, set in fictional government offices, play on the perceived absurdity of Abbott's position--Killeen's character exploits and degrades her long-suffering male assistant, talking over him and sending him on endless coffee runs.
Killeen's character is sexist, bumbling, superficial and flighty--the kind of ineffective, boorish politician of a dissatisfied public's imagination. These short episodes, usually single sketches, revel in the personality politics and lack of policy focus that governments are so often criticised--and ridiculed--for. 'The men of Australia are not buying a woman as the Minister for Men,' the minister's media advisor tells her. 'Really?' asks the minister. 'Because I did my own private poll last night and I had one very happy constituent.' This (re)imagining of a how a politician might speak behind closed doors if the genders were reversed came as a welcome dose of humour under a conservative government and in a society slow to change--or as some, including former prime minister Julia Gillard, have perceived, a society that seems to be sliding backwards. (2) Double standards about women's sexuality continue (schools teaching girls that sex makes them like 'used sticky tape' (3)) and reproductive freedoms are still not safe (as when 'Zoe's law' threatened legal abortion in New South Wales (4)).
The giddy banter and flippancy of the women in Minister for Men gives us a political spin on the 'female slacker' trope, one whereby the woman doesn't need to be a serious character unlike in most male-led comedies. In this short series, the women of Australia can relax; the stakes are off them, and it's the man who is pulling out his hair.
Created, co-written and directed by Kacie Anning--who, in 2012, crowdfunded her own six-part web series, Fragments of Friday--and co-written by Killeen, Minister for Men was unlikely to have gotten a run on commercial television (or, and especially, on the ABC under Abbott's leadership). However, it screened at just the right moment in Australian politics to act as pressure release for a public exasperated by its ultra-conservative leader. The speed of online release, and the virality that accompanies novel media forms such as web series, allows writers to be guided by and to capitalise on what and how the viewing public feels.
HOW TO TALK AUSTRALIANS
The 2014 series How to Talk Australians is set at the Delhi College of Linguistics, where students learn about Australian culture and vernacular for work in call centres. It's a beautifully produced series--a faded 1970s Polaroid aesthetic, old Holdens lining the streets, glass ashtrays, Winfield Blues, tinnies and tomato sauce--and realises a cheeky concept for Australians who often complain about receiving calls from overseas call centres. Here, it's not the Indian call centre workers who are strange, but rather the racist white Australians who are depicted as culture-less heavy drinkers with a bizarre obsession with meat and an ignorance about (and contempt for) the Indigenous owners of the land. In the first episode, one of the school's instructors even tells students that 30 per cent of Australians are casual racists, while the other 70 per cent are full-time.
The series' leads are schoolteachers who deliver deadpan lessons on rhyming slang and chucking sickies to an earnest class just trying their best to understand the 'Aussie way of life'. Directed by Tony Rogers, whose acclaimed SBS series Wilfred garnered a US remake, How to Talk Australians has racked up millions of views. However, it's still hard to imagine, with its entirely South Asian main cast, that it would be welcome on Australia's notoriously whitewashed television. Yet the premise of How to Talk Australians is not new and bears similarities to Michael Powell's 1966 Australian film They're a Weird Mob, in which an Italian journalist, Nino (Walter Chiari), comes to Australia to work for a magazine and has to learn to speak and behave 'like an Australian'. In a scene at Sydney's iconic Marble Bar, Nino almost offends a local drinker when he misunderstands the slang term to shout. After the initial confusion, Nino catches on and wins over the man by adopting this vernacular.
The reaction to How to Talk Australians was largely positive --for instance, it was applauded by The Age's Bhakthi Puvanenthiran for 'tackl[ing] racism'. (5) However, the series did anger some and, in the YouTube comments, there can still be found some claims of 'reverse racism' because of the depiction of poor old Aussies. If the series has unsettled some, it is because Australians are still uncomfortable being confronted about the realities of race relations in this country. That we white Australians still can't laugh at ourselves or accept non-white perspectives is indicative of--and only furthered by--our whitewashed media landscape.
THE KATERING SHOW
In 2015 spoof cooking-show comedy The Katering Show, gender roles and stereotypes play a central role. Stars, writers and directors Kate McLennan (an 'intolerable foodie') and Kate McCartney (who has several food intolerances) greet the audience in the 'Thermomix' episode with the introduction 'We're women!' before reading out fictional abuse from the YouTube comments section. The Kates deliver their lines in the exaggerated, scripted style of television presenters, but the facade is always breaking, with their dissatisfaction, disappointment and existential dread revealed in deadpan asides and even flat-out riffs on alcoholism and mental illness.
These satirical depictions of 'mad women'--whose emotions are pathologised, who are 'hysterical'--are constant gags in The Katering Show. But the series hits its highest notes when exposing our vulnerabilities and desires: the white, middle-class pursuit of wellness and cultural authenticity. The Kates are deeply unhappy as they strive for Instagram 'likes' for photos of their hyper-decorated cupcakes, shell out A$3000 for a trendy blender, and attempt to exhibit 'worldliness'. In 'Mexicana Festiana', McLennan begins a monologue about the time she 'lived' in Mexico for nine days, explaining the positive virtues of 'the Mexican people', before McCartney cuts her off with noise from blending frozen margaritas. In 'We Quit Sugar', the pair then embarks on a sugar detox made famous by former Australian cooking-show host Sarah Wilson. A period of clammy lifelessness is followed by a montage of rejuvenation as McLennan and McCartney frolic and practise yoga, in a send-up of the 'wellness' theme commonly found on blogs and Instagram. And, in 'Food Porn', the Kates take aim at the performative nature of food culture, its emphasis on style over substance ('Fuck how it tastes!' they assert), and the broader way we document and curate our lives online.
From farmers' markets to pressure cookers ordered from Germany, The Katering Show subverts middle-class Australia's frenzied attempts at
grasping at meaning, while also voicing women's often-silent struggles. In particular, the relationship between eating disorders and new obsessions with 'food as healing' is neatly summarised by a shopping list on their fridge: 'quinoa, kale, skinny tea, body horror'.
The barriers to women entering commercial television, especially comedy, make online an obvious choice of platform for emerging female writers and actors. New Zealand web series Flat3, directed and co-written by Roseanne Liang, follows a trio of young Asian-Kiwi women sharing a flat in Auckland as they navigate their career and romantic aspirations. The first self-funded season, aired in 2013, found a small though dedicated following, and eventually the third and final season was funded by NZ On Air in 2014.
Hailed as 'NZ's answer to Girls', (6) the narrative series is funny, brash and intelligent, regularly skewering stereotypes to do with race and gender. Actor JJ Fong, who plays Jessica, remarks on the series' motivation that there are '[n]o lead parts for Asian woman, and we wanted to make comedy. It's rare to see lead Asian females on screen. Actually, there are none, apart from Lucy Liu.' (7) The three leads play on Asian female stereotypes: Lee (Ally Xue) is the shy overachiever, Perlina (Perlina Lau) is the budding 'dragon lady' and Jessica is the 'sexy' one. In the opening episode, Lee, an aspiring artist, struggles to choose between following her creative passion or pursuing the stable life of an accountant, which her mother wishes for her. She then moves in with Jessica and Perlina, who is unpopular at work and has difficulty forfeiting control. In the second episode, 'Jessica', the eponymous aspiring actor auditions for a role as a 'student/lawyer/prostitute' and later works, dressed in cheongsam, handing out wasabi peas on the footpath.
The series' exploration of race in relationships is consistently nuanced. When Perlina meets up with her white ex-boyfriend, she discovers he only dated her because she is Asian. And, after Jessica is accused of racial stereotyping by a lover just as she decries the 'FOB [fresh off the boat] whore' role she auditioned for, she comments that being romantically involved with an Asian guy 'would be like dating [her] own brother'--leading her partner to accuse her of needing 'to prove [she's] not privileged by dating a brown guy'.
The comparisons to Girls are well founded--Flat3 is barefaced and honest, deliberately awkward, and realistic about sex and friendship--although it must be mentioned that there are still so few comedies about young women that, inevitably, anything resembling the HBO series will be compared to it. Nevertheless, Liang's talent for writing about sex and the show's dirty humour powerfully combine with her ability to capture the experiences of the local Kiwi-Chinese community. (8) Fong does note that the older generation probably don't enjoy the show--'It's pretty rude' (9)--and Liang agrees: 'It's very filthy [...] But I guess we wanted it to be kind of real.' (10)
Its appeal can also be attributed to how it speaks to the more artistic members of its audience, as Lee navigates the dilemma facing most creatives: art or money. Fittingly, this is also a theme confronted by the web series as a medium, whereby art always wins.
STARTING FROM ... NOW!
In 2014 Australian series Starting from ... Now!, Steph (Sarah de Possesse) is a graphic designer who moves to Sydney for a new start and a new job, but it all goes pear-shaped when she falls for her best friend Kristen's (Lauren Orrell) girlfriend, Darcy (Rosie Lourde). Intimately shot and leisurely paced, with only a couple of scenes per episode, it's a series about lesbians without sexuality being an overt theme. Instead, viewers watch infidelity, alcohol abuse, infertility and career dilemmas--all well-worn soap-opera territory but with a refreshing reframing.
While lesbian soaps have had cult success overseas with the US's The L Word and the UK's Lip Service, among others, Australia is still missing out. Our TV is largely heterosexual and our most successful queer characters, such as that played by Josh Thomas in his internationally successful Please Like Me, are men. We have had Janet King, the spin-off based on the eponymous character from Crownies, and some experimental lesbian kisses in soaps here and there--All Saints' Charlotte (Tammy Macintosh) and straight co-worker Bronwyn (Libby Tanner), Neighbours' curious teens Lana (Bridget Neval) and Sky (Stephanie McIntosh), Home and Away's high schoolers Charlie (Esther Anderson) and Joey (Kate Bell)--but queer women are consistently underrepresented on Aussie TV.
Curiously, writer and director Julie Kalceff says the majority of the series' views come from the US and France (dedicated fans have even added French subtitles to the show on YouTube), explaining:
It's been difficult for us to get publicity in Australia. And I think it's because [...] it's a show about women. I feel like if I was a man and this show was about men and we'd had this level of success, people would be falling over each other to know more about it [...] We 're still stuck in that situation where women's stories are devalued. (11)
Starting from ... Now! might not be doing anything particularly new in terms of narrative, but it's an enjoyable and well-told series that homes in on the complexities of friendship, relationships and where the two overlap. The first season establishes Steph's illicit affair with Darcy as she struggles to maintain her friendship with Kristen, while her only new friend--a co-worker, Emily (Bianca Bradley)--vies for her affection. Season 2 delves into the aftermath of the affair, as Kristen attempts to patch things up with Darcy and embark on fertility treatment. With such a small cast, Starting from ... Now!'s focus on its character relationships is deep and authentic. We feel Emily's frustration as she tries to get closer to Steph, only to find herself repeatedly sidelined for Darcy, and the tension is palpable as we follow Kristen's suspicions ultimately be confirmed.
The series is also impressively woman-dominated, with a speaking male character only appearing for the first time well into the third season.
When non-white, queer and women's stories are absent from our television screens, it is a damning indictment of Australian intolerance and bigotry. Fortunately, these stories are flourishing online--but, while the internet may be a somewhat safer space to take risks on out-of-the-ordinary ideas and to make mistakes, creators are also more immediately and directly open to criticism: the YouTube comments section is considered one of the most feral places on the internet for a reason. Writers might be able to upload whatever they want online with no commercial interests to inhibit them, but they are still vulnerable to the spite of basement dwellers lashing out at their audacity to create--which is especially true of those who are not straight white men.
Thankfully, content producers such as those who've made the five shows above have not been deterred. And, if Australian and New Zealand trends are set to follow those in the US, we should soon be seeing web series making the leap to TV--that the ABC funded both local production Wastelander Panda's 2013 second series (12) and The Katering Show's forthcoming second season (13) as iview-exclusive content can be seen as early signs of this. Perhaps, as they continue to gather huge audiences--The Katering Show's 'Thermomix' episode alone has over 1.8 million views--web series, and the diverse voices and stories they represent, will find their way off our computer screens and onto the telly.
Jessica Alice is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She was co-director of the National Young Writers' Festival and is poetry editor of Scum. Her writing and reviews can be found in The Guardian, Junkee, The Lifted Brow, Cordite Poetry Review, Spook Magazine and others.
(1) See Nicole Elphick, 'The Popular Australian Web Series You're Not Watching', Daily Life, 3 July 2015, <http://www.dailylife. com.au/dl-people/dl-entertainment/the-popular-australian-web -series-youre-not-watching-20150702-gi3m80.html>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(2) 'Julia Gillard Says Australia Has Gone Backwards in Political Gender Gap', The Guardian, 29 July 2015, <http://www.the guardian.com/world/2015/jul/29/julia-gillard-australia-backwards -political-gender-gap>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(3) See Van Badham, 'Girls Who Have Sex Are like Tape That Loses Its Stickiness, Seriously?', The Guardian, 3 July 2015, <http:// www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/03/girls-who -have-sex-are-like-tape-that-loses-its-stickiness-seriously>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(4) See James Robertson, '"Zoe's Law" Bill Lapses, Closing Controversial Chapter', The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2014, <http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/zoes-law -bill-lapses-closing-controversial-chapter-20141120-11qhq5. html>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(5) Bhakthi Puvanenthiran, Talking Australian Parody Web Series Tackles Racism', The Age, 19 August 2014, <http://www.the age.com.au/entertainmenftv-and-radio/talking-australian-parody -web-series-tackles-racism-20140819-105owj.html>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(6) Aicha Marhfour, 'Why You Should Watch NZ's Answer to Girls', Daily Life, 19 September 2014, <http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl -people/interviews/why-you-should-watch-nzs-answer-to-igirlsi -20140918-3g11w.html>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(7) JJ Fong, quoted in Marhfour, ibid.
(8) In 2013, 'almost 1 in 4 people [...] living in the Auckland region identified with one or more Asian ethnic groups'; see Statistics New Zealand, '2013 Census QuickStats About Culture and Identity', 15 April 2014, <http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/ 2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-culture -identity/asian.aspx>, accessed 9 November 2015.
(9) Fong, quoted in Marhfour, op. cit.
(10) Liang, quoted in Marhfour, ibid.
(11) Julie Kalceff, quoted in Elphick, op. cit.
(12) See AR Collins, 'Wild Web Series: The Journey to Wastelander Panda', Metro, no. 183, Summer 2015, pp. 110-3.
(13) 'Catch the Wonderful on ABC TV in 2016', media release, ABC, 24 November 2015, <http://tv.press.abc.net.au/catch-the -wonderful-on-abc-tv-in-2016>, accessed 25 November 2015.
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|Title Annotation:||AUSTRALIA ON THE SMALL SCREEN|
|Article Type:||Television program review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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