"Did you see that show. OMG it was the worst." I love conversations that start like this, unless it turns out the subject of the gleeful derision is something I worked on.
There's been a lot of talk of "slow TV" of late, things such as train journeys in almost real time as opposed to the never-ending reality trips featuring fake chefs, fake marriages and suspiciously luscious lips. Bad TV has yet to become a marketing slogan but I think its time has come.
There's the gobsmackingly terrible — but I can't stop watching — stuff, like the Baz Luhrmann film Australia. Crikey that was so bad I kinda enjoyed it. Drinking games ensued, with dispensations of booze triggered by the word "crikey". I may have passed out.
There's one name in New Zealand TV history that gets to wear the "worst" tag more than most, a sitcom that ran on TV3 back in the mid 90s called Melody Rules. Some say the mythology around it is bigger than the programme was horrible, but having rewatched the first episode recently, which you can see via NZ On Screen, my gob remains smacked. Not because we made a show this average, but that we made 40 freakin episodes of it. Reviewers used words such as "cringeworthy", "terrible" and "disaster". Actors involved in it left the country. So what the hell went wrong?
Geoff Houtman, one of the people responsible for the mess, has been asking the same question. He's just released a detailed autopsy in the form of an excellent podcast, entitled The Worst Sitcom Ever Made (Via RNZ, itunes ).
Houtman's name appears as creator of this televisual dog along with Mihera Paterson but things are way more complicated. Much is revealed in the yarn Houtman weaves in this incredibly engaging and warm hearted dissection of a disaster. For reasons that become apparent from the get go, this is clearly a masterclass in how not to make successful TV.
Some tips I took away include: Don't employ a Survivor-style elimination round that saw 100 writers whittled down to 10 over the period of a few weeks. And maybe don't try to shoot a sitcom in a room that can barely fit actors and cameras at the same time. Houtman has been beating himself up for years and has clearly been scarred by the "failure".
"Was it all my fault?" he asks throughout. He also asks nearly everyone else involved in the debacle, including famous Kiwi redhead Belinda Todd, who he tracks down in an LA bar. The choice of one of the country's most edgy journalists to play a stuffy, naggy big sister called Melody, is as perplexing as the apparent reason is amazing. The theory goes that TV3 wanted to get their money's worth from Todd, who was still on a retainer after the cancellation of Nightline. It was a decision that looked good on a spreadsheet.
The actors, writers, even the director, view the show as one might the wreckage of a Boeing strewn across a mountain side. Amusingly, a couple of executives further up the food chain are the only holdouts, first denying that the show was a shambles and then blaming the critics, the kiwi clobbering machine, and even in a moment that invoked Mr Trump, the "elites". To them, Melody Rules was a success and if it was badly received that's because New Zealanders are a mean-spirited, miserable bunch of sods.
Australians on the other hand, are bloody lunatics. How else do you explain Chris Lilley, star and creator of some of the most loved (Summer Heights High) and some of the most loathed, (Jonah of Tonga) shows of the past couple of decades?
Lilley's latest, Lunatics, is now showing on Netflix, and it's about some of the worst people in Lilley's head, all played by Lilley himself. There's a Zimbabwean lady who's a pet psychic, a fast-talking real estate agent with a congenitally fat arse, a giant young woman with bulbous legs, a foul-mouthed year 7 douchebag and an ex porn star.
Like Ricky Gervais, Lilley has become a target for the more sensitive members of society and is now been judged a racist and all-purpose multi category phobe.
Reviewers have mostly been pretty grumpy and tut tutting in tone. I laughed a lot, so I give it a thumbs up. It's a perplexing state of affairs that a vocal chunk of the generation who grew up chortling on Summer Heights High, on Borat and on South Park, have grown up with their hands so firmly placed on their hips and are in the possession of such pursed, dry, lips.