What’d we steal this time, the raisins? – New Zealand TV in America

New Zealand has been very much in New York this past month. First of all, I hit the town with artist Judy Millar on her last weekend here.

Judy’s in Berlin now, but we had a great day trawling galleries together – seeing the incomparable Marina Abramović – and she very generously shared thoughts on her life as an artist.

Then – yay – Jaquie Brown popped up on my TV screen as the Logo network started screening the first series of her brilliant Diaries. (Somehow watching it at this distance with unsuspecting locals makes all the queer little jokes pop a bit more. The celeb cameos don’t get in the way of the story, perhaps?)

Then Time Out wrote about how to have a New Zealand Staycation in NYC.

And, there’s the soccer.

And then on Sunday night I had the strangest sensation. I was home, but I wasn’t. People I have known for the past five years were in my house, getting along just fine. Recalling intimate details, ribbing each other, making plans for the week, making love. Then the cops arrived…

“What’d we steal this time, the raisins?” – Hope West to Sergeant Mack, Scoundrels.

…Actually, there I was, writing a column about cover songs for a new gig, when the alarm went to remind me to watch the premiere of Scoundrels, the American version of Outrageous Fortune. In other words, the TV equivalent of a cover version.

Cover versions of telly shows aren’t new in the format world. Idol, Master Chef, Top Chef, Next Top Model – they’re all reality TV covers. But in drama it’s pretty unusual, for the audience, at least. In fact, scripted formats have been doing the rounds of television sales markets for years, and Scoundrels is exactly the kind of result a producer looks for.

I was pretty thrilled to be a witness to this.

Along with nearly 50% of New Zealand on Tuesday nights at 9.30pm, I’m a fan of OF. I’ll happily put up with a whole episode of fart jokes if it means that the following week’s episode will focus on the women in the West family. Such is the beautiful pattern the writers have created, and it keeps a broad audience watching.

Scoundrels is ABC’s second crack at Outrageous Fortune. Good Behaviour was the first pilot, and I wish I’d seen it just for a glimpse of the wonderful Catherine O’Hara (a Christopher Guest movie staple), and the excellent Gary Cole, as Cheryl and Wolf.

That casting change alone is enough to tell us what the network was gunning for second time around: less quirk, more sex; less dark, more light. Virginia Madsen and David James Elliott have a nice chemistry, but on first glance it’ll take a while before Scoundrels’ Wayne Judd equivalent, Sergeant Mack, blooms into a full-blown romantic rival.

Then again, those of us who’ve been watching Outrageous Fortune for five years know it’s a slow burn, so it’s kinder to hold off on the crystal ball stuff.

What did strike me, and the bonafide Westie I was watching with (who’s seen every episode of OF thanks to kind aunties and their VHS recorders), was the lack of, well, Westieness. The episode was tripping along quite happily, in much the same vein as Ep 1 of OF. On schedule, Grandpa moved in, but he shoulda appeared naked in the first episode. The twins are set up convincingly, though their Munter – Cruz, a Latino of as yet unknown extraction – gets barely half a line and there’s no suggestion of who he might become.

But then came the party scene. Logan (their Jethro) had just passed the bar, so the Wests celebrated with a bit of a piss-up, as they do. But where was the piss? The smoking? The raucous music? The raunchy sex? We could see bunting and party lights and not much else and then scene over.

Scoundrels is set in Palm Springs. I don’t know much about Palm Springs as a location and what that sets up in the viewer’s mind about the characters. Beyond my foreign view of blue-rinsed octogenarians, golfers, and the Coachella music festival, I can’t picture the subculture. So I asked a few locals, and none of them could immediately identify it either, in the same way that Jersey says Sopranos, or that The West Wing says Washington. Or that Dallas says oil jockeys. Or that unleashing a bunch of Queens boys on Los Angeles spells “trouble” (or “Entourage”). Basically, in a way that suggests high drama.

The culture of the Wests is the biggest character of all in Outrageous Fortune, after all. Cheryl’s declaration – “We’re going straight” – works in a wider context. In Scoundrels, the list of West family crimes runs to: “forge a few bad checks, rip off a few over-priced hotels. Oh, and heist a shipment of lobsters on its way to a casino”.

Hmm. Mind you, it’s early days. And in the odd way that life has a habit of imitating art, the weird story of Party of Five actor Jeremy London has me thinking there might be more to Palm Springs after all. Consider this report from CNN about London’s alleged kidnapping at gunpoint, in Palm Springs.

In the statement, London, 37, also lashes out at his mother, twin brother Jason and his brother’s girlfriend, saying they were spreading “outrageous lies” about the incident. London, who says he hasn’t spoken to his family in six months, sent legal threats to his family to stop talking to the press. He also says he’s seeking restraining orders against them.

Twins. Outrageous lies. Restraining order against own mother. Write it into the series, now.


3 Responses to “What’d we steal this time, the raisins? – New Zealand TV in America”

  1. Craig Ranapia

    OK, kinds of a meta-question here but does American television have any kind of track record at taking white trash at all seriously? I think that’s what Outrageous Fortune did, in it’s own magnificently perverse way — the Wests and their dysfunctional extended family may be tacky, trashy and dodgy as all hell but you’re going to pay attention and care about these people.

  2. Beaut Commute

    Love this post. Westies of the world unite! Show yourselves and your distinctive vernaculars! It’s got to be more about appropriation than copying right? Capture the zeitgeist of the original and then apply that to the new culture. Ricky Gervais plays a UK dork in a UK office. Steve Carrell doesn’t play the David Brent with an American accent, he plays an American dork in an American office. So thinks I anyway.

  3. toomuchpersonality

    Craig! Great question. “My Name Is Earl”, I think, did a lovely job. Nice premise, great characters, and we care about Earl. Also, “Trailer Park Boys” out of Canada. I don’t think the American Wests need to be strict trailer trash – after all, that house is very lower-to-middle class NZ, right? And the family *has* made money.
    And BeautCommute – yes, the Office got a lot of discussion around here in the context of Scoundrels. All agree that it took a good season to shuck off the Ricky Gervais model and settle into the Steve Carrell version… However, the settting & context remain similar, which helped…


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