Utopia: Relaxed and Comatose

‘Where have the rigorous conversations gone? Where is the sense of engagement in public life? Toughen up, you weak fucks.’ Wesley Enoch, Queensland Theatre Company.*

It grieves me to admit: I’ve come not to lavish praise upon Utopia, our beloved Working Dog team’s latest ABC effort, but instead, perhaps, to campaign for its humane euthanasia.

Applying the ol’ faux-doco trope on the prototypically hapless workings of government department the NBA (Nation Building Authority), Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner and Santo Cilauro return with an ambling, over-familiar riff on the themes we saw with the excellent The Hollowmen and superb current affairs spoof Frontline.

Setting course straight for torpid, Utopia opens to the warm, nostalgic strains of Dean Martin doing Volare (full title Nel blu dipinto di blu; in English In the Sky, Painted Blue — see what they did there?), unspooling over crisp virtual renderings of what we can assume are untold numbers of doomed NBA projects.

Situating us in the recent past, and conferring a soon to be thwarted thrill of potential vim, a key soundbite gives us, your friend and mine, Tony Abbott on the stump, declaring ‘I want to be known as the infrastructure Prime Minister’.

With recent history as fodder, the possibilities are, momentarily, endless.

And also immediately scuppered.

Taking on directing duties and playing the gormless, put-upon middle-management drip Tony (hang about!), Sitch’s directorial and ensemble performance choices evoke the sensation of sliding into a pair of well-gnawed slippers. Disappointingly toothless, this ambling exploration of the well-worn, self evident pitfalls of cubicle life in glacially inclined, priority challenged, process-askew bureaucracies plays mainly glib and depressingly quaint.

Granted, the Working Dog crew has always favoured a gentler brand of satire, but previous efforts fairly dripped with corrosive bile compared to this tepid shower of sort-of tolerable paper shufflers going about the obvious business of getting governments photo opportunities.

Putting aside some borderline cases who’ll best go unremarked, younger comics Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola give the material a spirited swing, while Anthony Lehmann, better known as every-bloke Lehmo, nails the shifty-liaison-from-upstairs type solidly between the eyes.

The less said about Toby Truslove’s go-to ‘creative’ visionary, the better (although the animosity may be purely vocational).

Now, admittedly, this all may be some unrealistic transference of spiky revolutionary expectations on my behalf, but in the current harrowing political climate, and in a world of VEEPs and Thick of Its (Armando Iannucci), in a world in which there’s an Iraqi sitcom, State Of Myths, bravely (understatements) putting the boot into ISIL, and John Oliver‘s punchy Last Week Tonight, surely it’s time Australians should demand more challenging satirical gristle and verve from our writers, performers, comics and artists.

Yes, this is some mid-evening Wednesday ABC viewing, and our supine culture defaults at ‘she’ll be right’, even in the maw of the neutering of our press and online freedoms (meanwhile: the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong), whilst nary an agitated peep is registered as the oppressive National Security Legislation Amendment Bill skips jauntily through our upper and lower houses. At issue, also, is the ABC’s (it’s been a very long time since a commercial network even attempted content of this nature) running battle with News Ltd and confected allegations of bias, a campaign designed to erode critical thought and content.

Still, that’s been the case since well before Rubbery Figures, Australia: You’re Standing In It, The Big Gig and yes, The D-Generation ruled what was, in hindsight, a relative golden era through the eighties into the mid nineties.

There, then, is the essential rub with Utopia. It’s good natured, slightly exasperated relationship with the dysfunctional cogs of our democracy feels anachronistic in a toxic climate in which we’re well past our rights to be spitting piss, vinegar and howling outrage (constructively, mind: keep that shit to a minimum on my Twitter feed).

Sure, that’s symptomatic of a broader problem with our culture’s approach to questioning power through creativity and art: our unflappable national disdain for authority rubbing directly up against our collective wariness of stepping outside of the mainstream.

Or is it exhaustion?

Anyway, that’s another essay entirely. In a nutshell, seek out one of the other sterling examples of the form listed above, and hope that next time, when the Working Dog crew returns to our screens, something’s really, really gotten on their collective wicks.

Really, they’re spoiled for choice, topic wise, right?

*’Take Me to Your Leader: The dilemma of cultural leadership’, Platform Papers, August 2014 (as quoted in The Monthly, October 2014).

Originally published at www.hopscotchfriday.com.