Comedy is a culturally specific genre, but in the Western world humour and format can successfully cross borders, as demonstrated in Australia by the popularity of UK and US productions. But can this success be replicated in the other direction? Can Australian content similarly attract wider audiences and achieve transnational success?
Utopia is a Working Dog production that follows the working lives of employees at the Nation Building Trust, a fictional government agency concerned with solving Australia’s infrastructure problems. Last year it was bought by Netflix, providing a rare opportunity for the global exposure of Australian entertainment.
In his research of sitcoms, academic Brett Mills termed the style ‘comedy verite’, which describes TV shows that employ a documentary style of filming for comedic purposes (Mills, 2004). They “[undermine] the distinctions between sitcom and documentary, between seriousness and humour, [and demonstrate] that the outcomes of one can be achieved through the conventions of the other” (Mills 2004, p. 74). Utopia utilises this style and consequently can, and has been, compared to TV shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation.
The Office is renown for its documentary style filming; the characters mostly know that they are being filmed, but at times they do not, and this contributes to the comedy of the show. Characters in Parks and Recreation also engage with the camera which highlights the playful relationship between documentary and comedy. While Utopia does not engage with documentary style filming as explicitly as The Office and Parks and Recreation, it nonetheless fits the ‘comedy verite’ genre in its satirical portrayal of the workplace. It is not wholly fictional, yet not wholly factual; the audience finds themselves laughing, all the while not sure if the content is real.
All three TV shows explore the day-to-day relationships, achievements and setbacks in the workplace, and thus are highly accessible to diverse audiences (Thompson & Mittell 2013, p. 206). While the main themes in Utopia are based on broader topics that are usually relevant to Australia, the comedy throughout each episode is mostly constituted of daily struggles that can resonate with people around the world (e.g.: not being able to get Wi-Fi or the photocopier not working) (Lubin, 2016). Moreover, the show’s satire of the Australian government – “the time and money-wasting, the confused priorities, the red tape and the obsession with image over substance” (Neutze, 2015) – would also be applicable to other bureaucracies, and relevant to other audiences.
Utopia has been described as “a rare and thrilling opportunity for cultural crossover” and so far, the series has received positive feedback (Lubin, 2016). The show undoubtedly holds potential, but only time will tell as to whether Australian comedy at large can become a dominant player in the global television industry.
Goodall, J. 2016, ‘Beyond Satire’, Inside Story, February 2, viewed August 21 2016, http://insidestory.org.au/beyond-satire
Idato, M. 2015, ‘Netflix buys hit Australian comedy series Utopia from Working Dog’, Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, viewed August 21 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/netflix-buys-hit-australian-comedy-series-utopia-from-working-dog-20150723-giim1n.html
Kalviknes Bore, I. 2009, ‘Negotiating generis hybridity: Audience engagement with The Office’, Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 33-42
Lubin, J. 2016, ‘Comedy Wizards of Oz: Why Americans Should Watch Australia’s ‘Dreamland’, Observer, August 1, viewed August 21 2016, http://observer.com/2016/01/comedy-wizards-of-oz-why-americans-should-watch-australias-dreamland/
Mills, B. 2004, ‘Comedy verite: contemporary sitcom forum’, Screen, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 63-78
Neutze, B. 2015, ‘ABC’s Utopia Returns As Truth Edges Past Strange Fictions’, Daily Review, August 17, viewed August 21 2016, https://dailyreview.com.au/abcs-utopia-returns-as-truth-edges-past-strange-fictions/28560/
Pender, A. 2014, ‘Working Dog’s Utopia is a welcome satirical treat’, The Conversation, August 21, viewed August 21 2016, http://theconversation.com/working-dogs-utopia-is-a-welcome-satirical-treat-30649
Thompson, E. & Mittell, J. 2013, How To Watch Television, New York University Press, New York