The Casketeers is an instant Kiwi classic - but how did it end up on TV screens? Calum Henderson asks the question.
Have you ever paused to wonder how The Casketeers ended up on TV? Was some TV person at a funeral, halfway through farewelling a loved one, when suddenly a light bulb flickered on above their head and they thought, you know what, these guys would make amazing talent?
However it happened, thank goodness it did because the result is some of the best New Zealand television we've seen in ages.
The first season, which arrived on TVNZ 1 this time last year, was a pure, warm-hearted delight. It managed to be far funnier and at the same time more elegant than you would ever have imagined a fly-on-the-wall show about the day-to-day operations of a funeral home could be. Most of that was down to the charisma of funeral director Francis Tipene, who along with his wife, Kaiora, runs Tipene Funerals, overseeing branches in Onehunga and Henderson.
As we rejoin the team for season two, it's clear there have been some major changes since we last saw them. Most importantly, as Kaiora explains: "Francis has bought a leaf sucker." The Turbo Vac 600 is an impressive bit of kit – much more discreet and dignified than a leaf blower. It suits him.
He bought it, naughtily, without telling his wife. He shrugs: "There are some things you just have to do." And, look, the results speak for themselves – the Tipene Funerals forecourt has never looked more spotless. "It's not just a leaf sucker," Francis explains, channeling the sales instinct of Suzanne Paul, "it sucks up litter as well."
His deadpan comic timing is never anything short of perfect, able to elevate any scene, no matter how mundane. At one point he joins right-hand-man Scottie on his lunch break for an extended discussion about their new healthy eating habits (both have lost quite a lot of weight since season one). "I miss chocolate," Scottie admits while picking at an undressed salad. "Well," Francis replies, "they were saying that dark chocolate's quite healthy… but it's gross."
It's enough to make you forget this is really a show about a topic most of us fear more than anything else in the world: death. The work at Tipene Funerals is approached with honesty and remarkable grace, and seeing it presented so matter-of-factly is quietly reassuring. It shows that while this is obviously serious business, it's really nothing to be afraid of.
Nothing seems to phase Francis, anyway. A whānau needs to sleep in the chapel because there's not enough room at the house of the deceased? No problem, go and get the mattresses. And when it's time to leave, he'll be the one who's there with the guitar, leading everybody in song.
These beautiful, moving scenes, they sneak up on you. And the way The Casketeers manages to combine them so naturally with big doses of good-natured, big-hearted humour, that's what really makes it such a triumph. An instant Kiwi TV classic.