One of the first times TV3 commissioned a sitcom, it set off a multi-decade paroxysm of national shame and remorse.
Melody Rules only ran for two seasons, but its impact was profound. Scoop said the 1993 show was “awful”. The New Zealand Herald called it “cringeworthy”. Belinda Todd, who played the titular Melody, said filming was “absolutely ghastly”. Another star, Alan Brough, had to move overseas to escape his embarrassment. Recently Radio NZ produced a podcast hosted by one of the show’s writers Geoff Houtman. It was titled The Worst Sitcom Ever Made.
Now, more than 25 years later, Three (as it is now known) is finally again ready to try breaking the curse Melody Rules cast.
While previous attempts like Super City, The Jaquie Brown Diaries, Sunny Skies and Hounds met with mixed success, Tuesday night sees the debut of two shows commissioned after last September’s Comedy Pilot Week.
There’s the primary school-set Mean Mums at 8.35pm, followed by Golden Boy at 9.05pm. The latter show tells the story of Mitch, a self-destructive aspiring journalist living in the shadow of her All Black brother Tama in a rugby-mad small town. Its underlying mission though is overcoming one of our most enduring television taboos. Not that its head writer Alice Snedden cares about that or anything.
“My role is not to worry about how New Zealand, in the wake of Melody Rules 20 years later, will recover,” she says. “I’ve never looked at a New Zealand television audience and thought ‘my ego must rest on their discernment’. That would be an absolute nightmare. My comedy career would be taking place on Country Calendar.”
* Mean Mums, supportive parents and playing it for laughs
* Melody Rules: looking back on Kiwi television’s biggest flop
* TV review: Mean Mums and Golden Boy
* Comedy Pilot Week on Three – nice concept, flawed execution
Snedden is a comedian whose most recent writing credits were Funny Girls and Jono & Ben. Both shows established big fanbases and an armada of detractors. She’s used to getting criticism and tuning it out. Even so, Golden Boy comes with an extra layer of risk: the sitcom genre, with its broad humour and in-your-face characters, can rub up against New Zealand’s penchant for humility that borders dangerously on self-loathing.
“Even if Melody Rules had been a great show, my feeling is that New Zealand would’ve found a way to hate it,” Snedden says. “Because we don’t like to see people try really hard at something. We find that embarrassing.”
That expectation to be understated and unassuming is something that’s applied almost exclusively to New Zealand shows, Snedden says. She cites the perennial high ratings of The Big Bang Theory, with its flat, uninspired comedy, as evidence we don’t apply our standards fairly across the board.
“If you chucked New Zealand actors in that show and you said it was written by New Zealanders, they’re going to hate that. And it’s not my job to fix that for them. We can only make something that we hope that they’ll like and if they don’t like it then c’est la vie.”
The only way to overcome that cultural cringe is to make something that feels true to you without being intimidated by the thought of pleasing an imagined broad audience, Snedden says. At its best, Golden Boy pulls that off perfectly.
There are moments of brilliance in its first episode; genuinely laugh-out-loud punchlines as the show’s characters gather for a night of speed dating. There are also a few bits where it strains under the weight of necessary exposition. The show has to establish Mitch (Hayley Sproull), her family, her love interest and an array of supporting characters, from Chris Parker’s surveillance-loving weirdo Derek Cousins to Kimberley Crossman’s seemingly-normal-but-possibly-a-pyromaniac Lisa Leitzenheimer.
While Snedden is proud of the show’s first season, she is looking forward to making more episodes with those introductions out of the way. “Generally if you go back and look at any sitcom and you look at their first season you think ‘what the f… were they doing there?’ And it was kind of because they had to make it and get on to their second season where people know the characters.”
The cast, crew, and directors also evolved a lot over the course of filming, she says. “I don’t know if the network knows this, but we were figuring it out as we went along.”
John McDonald, MediaWorks’ long-time head of in-house production, does know that. He helped set the goal of creating a sitcom, thinking it would be the next logical challenge for the stable of comedians who’d cut their teeth on shows like Funny Girls, Jono & Ben and Seven Days. Despite the team’s lack of experience in the genre, he’s not worried about repeating the trauma of sitcoms past. “The comedy industry has come a long way since then,” he says. “Fundamentally what you need is good comic writers and actors and we’re a lot further along than we were.”
If McDonald gets his way, Snedden will get her wish to make more seasons. He’s already making plans to go back to New Zealand On Air for more funding.
“I’d hope for maybe five series,” he says. “Definitely three.”
Three seasons is a curious number. At first glance, it wouldn’t seem like a mark of big success. But, then again, Melody Rules only ran for two.