Great shows you may never have heard of in Australia (part one)

Unless you’re an obsessive who lets television run their life and destroy their friendships like me, chances are you don’t have that much time to read and research television. You probably just watch whatever shows are on free-to-air here (so, onerous reality TV, The Big Bang Theory repeats and Border Security). The thing with free-to-air TV in Australia is that it sucks. Most channels don’t seem to understand the value of diverse and interesting programming – particularly Channel 10, whose continued slide is reminiscent of the fall of NBC in America. And instead of using their digital channels to diversify, they just play repeats of The Love Boat for some unknown reason.

So what the Australian public ends up with is ratings nights with two episodes of the same show, with a brilliant show buried in the the 10pm or 11pm hour like an Italian prime minister’s mistress. Alternatively, a free-to-air channel picks up the rights to a show and never even bothers to air it, or airs two episodes and then vanishes it away to a tower somewhere in Rupert Murdoch’s castle made of children’s bones. There’s an incredible lack of respect for the viewer’s time or intelligence.

Foxtel isn’t a whole lot better. Aside from bizarre programming decisions – like airing 30 Rock and Community, both young-skewing shows, on TV1, the same channel that plays “groovy” movies such as Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and still airs Monk for some reason – they seem to favour the stale over the fresh. The Comedy Channel, an ostensibly youth-oriented channel, would rather program repeats of Everybody Hates Chris (remember that Chris Rock had a show about his childhood? Yeah, no one else does either) than air fantastic, acclaimed shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Archer in a decent timeslot.

And due to this, most of us turn to the internet. Why bother waiting weeks or months for Channel 7 to finally start airing the new season of Parks and Recreation when you can jump onto The Pirate Bay an hour after it airs in the States and start downloading it? The international market seems to be something that US networks don’t think about much. They basically just find someone to screen their show and then never think about it again. What good does it do anyone to premiere season 2 of Game of Thrones the day after the second episode has aired in the US? Australians – or at least those I know – are voracious consumers of international TV content, and less and less frequently are they consuming it upon its actual broadcast.

So for those of you who are tired of the machinations of geo-blocking fascism, here’s a list of excellent recent shows that either haven’t aired here, or have and have flown largely under the radar.

Archer – Very probably the funniest show currently being made, Archer is best described as “Arrested Development, but ten times more insane and animated and about a spy agency”. It may seem like a stretch, but the comparison is wildly apt. Created and written almost entirely by Adam Reed, the show is set at a misfit spy agency named ISIS, home of the greatest secret agent in the world, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin). The agency is run by his mother, Malory (Jessica Walter), and populated by any number of batshit insane characters – the receptionist Cheryl (or Carol, or Cristal, who knows) voiced by Judy Greer, human resources manager Pam (Amber Nash), accountant Cyril (Chris Parnell), Nazi American scientist Krieger (Lucky Yates), fellow top agent Lana (Aisha Tyler), and gaygent Ray Gillette (Reed himself). The show’s first season starts off relatively conventionally, but as the show wears on the characters are developed into bottomless wells of comedic potential. The show’s greatest asset is the number of brilliant characters it has, and Reed is a master of writing in this form – the show is peppered, as in Arrested Development, with callbacks and running jokes, as well as references to anything from Burt Reynolds movies to great American literature. It’s a show that rewards repeat viewing because it gets funnier every single time, and is full of some of the greatest one-liners ever put to paper. Here’s a clip:

(Archer airs on Saturday nights on The Comedy Channel, and is supposedly coming soon to ABC2. The first two seasons are available on DVD).

Party Down – What do you get when you try and air a half-hour comedy in a Friday night timeslot on a barely watched cable network? The depressingly low-rated Party Down, which in two short seasons became one of the most interesting, clever, pathos-driven sitcoms in recent memory. Focusing on the exploits of a Los Angeles catering team staffed by losers and wannabes, we follow catchphrase-haunted Henry (the incomparable Adam Scott), comedian Casey (the pitch-perfect Lizzy Caplan), bro/actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen), sci-fi enthusiast/writer Roman (Freaks and Geeks alumnus Martin Starr), aging actor Constance (Jane Lynch for most of season 1 before she left for Glee), and stage mother Lydia (Megan Mullally, who joined the cast in season 2). The show’s conceit allows it to be in a different setting with different dilemmas and challenges to face each week, whether they are catering a young Republican fundraiser or having an impromptu party with Steve Guttenberg (yes, that happens, and it is phenomenal). The cast’s chemistry and the strength of the writing is comparable only to Parks and Recreation, and while Party Down is a vastly more cynical show than that one, they share the ability to create characters who not only make you laugh but make you root for them as well.

(Party Down has aired on ABC2, but is not presently airing. Both seasons are available on DVD, and the creators are reportedly working on a script for a film based on the show)

Suburgatory – Terrible title aside, this first-season show from former Parks and Recreation writer/producer Emily Kapnek has evolved into a pretty great show. It has its problems, certainly – it is often tonally inconsistent, and not always assured of exactly the kind of show it wants to be. But the story of a single father George (Jeremy Sisto) who moves his teenage daughter Tessa (Jane Levy, who is basically a tinier, drier Emma Stone) from New York City to the suburbs is less conventional than it sounds. Kapnek’s experience with Parks has clearly taught her the importance of building a universe within a show, and in terms of doing that, The Simpsons is basically the only show better to have on your resumé. Suburgatory has its chief problems plot-wise. There’s no end to the funny characters – particular standouts are Dallas (Cheryl Hines, who is fab) and her daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin, who has become one of the most interesting characters on the show), whose plastic, blonde vapidity has slowly been balanced out by real humanity and some of the best lines on this or any show this season. Similarly excellent is Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer), her daughter Lisa (Allie Grant, in a real breakout performance) and jock son Ryan (Parker Young). However, pointless subplots and guest-stars (watch for Alicia Silverstone later in the season and gird your loins) and superfluous, not-very-funny-or-interesting characters such as Noah (Alan Tudyk) have the tendency to weigh down otherwise funny episodes – but overall, the colourful, off-kilter, bizarro-world the show has created has incredible potential and by this time next year it might find itself on the top of end-of-year lists.

(Suburgatory currently airs on GO!. It’s about three-quarters of the way through the season, so you may need to use alternative methods to catch up)

Bob’s Burgers – Created by Loren Bouchard, this Fox animated show is a real anomaly in the network’s current animation lineup – mostly because it’s smart, off-the-wall, batshit insane hilarity featuring some of the funniest characters on TV right now. Bob Belcher (H. Jon Benjamin again) is the owner of the burger restaurant Bob’s Burgers, which he runs with his wife Linda (John Roberts) and his three children. The eldest, Tina (Dan Mintz) is the single most awkward pubescent girl ever; Gene (Eugene Mirman) is the insane, probably ADD-addled middle child who has boundless energy; and Louise (Kristen Schaal, whose voice suits the character almost too well) is the intelligent, mischievous ringleader, despite being the youngest. The show is wildly absurd, but it uses its absurdity in a way that feels natural, rather than the uncontrolled, random chaos of its network-mate Family Guy. The show starts off shaky but by the episode ‘Art Crawl’ you’ll be hooked – and there’s no other show on TV that will give you Cyndi Lauper singing a song called ‘Taffy Butt’ over the credits.

(Bob’s Burgers airs Saturday nights on The Comedy Channel, and nowhere else because non-digital free-to-air have abandoned animated programming completely)

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