ABC TV’s ‘Rosehaven’
All under heaven was chaos when The Odd Couple debuted on Broadway in 1965. Which is to say, this time was much like the present. Half a century ago, the citizens of Western nations had begun to feel a ruction in the stuff of themselves. The first combat troops landed on the shores of Vietnam, the first wave of women found the means for mass escape from their marriages. MLK marched through Selma. Malcolm X was shot dead in New York. Two white guys walked in space. Meanwhile, Neil Simon scored a hit with an apparently anodyne comedy about a pair of middle-class flatmates.
It’s near impossible to watch marvellous new work Rosehaven without thinking also of The Odd Couple. Of course, any comedy that puts a fussy neurotic in the company of a slobby roué will be associated with The Odd Couple. But this show, currently airing on ABC1, has earned the fullest scope of comparison with a play as shrewd as it was funny.
Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola have written and cast themselves into meaningful and contemporary iterations of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. McGregor’s Daniel, a loveless, nervous real estate agent yet to sell a single property, fits Simon’s description of “the only man in the world with clenched hair”. Pacquola’s Emma is a just-dumped grub who might offer her guests ancient, green sandwiches made from “either very new cheese or very old meat”. Daniel refuses to relax in the face of his life’s disappointment. Emma refuses to be housebroken, or familiar with her fresh pain. Like the famous Simon characters, they are evenly mismatched. And, just like Felix and Oscar’s, their arcs exceed the territory of the comedy itself to offer us a look at our own desperation.
If you don’t laugh, you’ll only be blinded by tears. This can be forgotten in cultural criticism, with its tendency to undervalue the things that make us laugh. The Odd Couple is largely remembered not as a play that addressed its own gravely shaken era, but a delivery method for Simon’s fast one-liners. It’s true the gags are great. The view, however, of two men lost to different compulsions in the confusion of their era is even better. Pacquola and McGregor are just as masterfully lost.
Felix and Oscar are adversaries turned to allies by the conditions of their time. They have been stung by divorce, mental illness and unfulfilling labour. It’s in their private lives we see the evidence of a pain that was publicly produced. The golden promise of the American mid-century never dawned for these two, and so they’re here in a twilight of denial and obsession, uncomfortably together. We find the Rosehaven pair in one of Tasmania’s least idyllic country towns living with Daniel’s mum, both leaving behind disappointing lives across Bass Strait. They trip through the palpable reminders of their failure. “Couldn’t hack it on the mainland?” is a question whose repetition whittles away at Daniel.
Pacquola and McGregor have devised characters just as fantastically broken, and almost as irreparable, as those they have created as stand-up comics. Patrons of live comedy will gratefully recognise their personae, two of the nation’s best, from the stage. Fans of TV’s comic misery, such as The Office, will applaud them. Even the viewer who normally prefers a positive message might permit themselves the pleasure of this downbeat, shabby world. If you’re worried a series that takes place in the chasm between aspiration and reality will depress you, here’s a simple test: did The Katering Show upset you? If it did, you should certainly seek glossier diversions.
If, on the other hand, you felt moved to write a note of thanks to The Katering Show, you will probably adore Rosehaven. On their parody cooking program, Kates McCartney and McLennan gave the idea of self-improvement a deft and necessary skewering. First screened on YouTube before its outings on ABC platforms, this work beat a generation’s profound disappointment into art. Layers of discontent are evident in a moment where neither Kate can stomach the lasagne they have baked. Made from a human placenta, this particular pasta stands as the cold, untouched remnant of their hope. They want to be bubbly new mums, champions of niche wellness and producers of high-end, low-gluten cuisine whose creation is itself a soft-focus ecstasy. They fail. The episode ends with each Kate pumping breast milk, appearing more deflated with every squeeze.
An ongoing obsession in The Katering Show is real estate. One Kate fears the next mortgage payment may kill her. The other Kate dreams meanly of a future inheritance and waits for her parents to die. When you watch Rosehaven, also fixated with real estate, you may warmly wonder if its production was made possible by the Kates’ self-started success. Outside of its current affairs department, Our ABC tends not to commission any misery.
Screen comedies that address the specific hardships of millennials veer often towards happiness. As bleak as Josh Thomas’s good ABC2 dramedy Please Like Me can be, its episodes frequently end in a moment of cheerful whimsy. Unlike Josh, you’re not going to see Emma and Daniel sell handcrafted sweets from a decorated cart, and they’re unlikely to recite a triumphant spoken-word piece about mercy like Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in Girls. Mostly, they just get on each other’s wick.
This is not to say that Rosehaven is an unstinting bitchfest barren of warmth and plot. The premise – with his newly jilted friend Emma, Daniel returns to his childhood home when he feels obliged to assist his reluctant, slightly infirm mother in her motionless real estate business – keeps the series ticking along. The protagonists do like each other, but never in that way. The story is perfectly serviceable and the lead performances are complex enough that it’s difficult not to sympathise with their characters. But the truest strength of this first-rate comedy is its keen dissatisfaction.
When Felix and Oscar are kvetching over cornflakes, it’s never just them in the room. The institutions of the world are falling apart and the disturbance is felt at breakfast. These white male providers are almost always on the verge of shrieking, “This is not the life I was promised!”, a frustration felt and described well for the present era in Rosehaven.
Emma and Daniel don’t own property. Their attempts to forge a career have always been thwarted. Daniel fears intimacy, and Emma had it torn from her. They do not celebrate their enforced and protracted youth, but try to overcome it by mimicking the life of an adult.
These are not joyous kidults, but two people lodged by life in a reluctant adolescence. Each of them remains partially delusional, relying on the languages of self-help or corporate success to get through the day. But the symptoms of their discontent play out.
Emma performs, but does not actually experience, whimsical millennial moments. She buys all the clothes in the op shop, fetishises the quaint ways of the small town and greets the local hoarder like a sage. She has the habits of a hipster, but the hidden heart of a goth. It beats in brief moments, such as when she replies to a text message from her absconded husband with the advice that she is dead.
In another scene, Daniel makes a whiteboard presentation to his mother urging her to modernise her operations. When she partially agrees to this buzzword proposal, he is so shocked to be taken seriously the whiteboard with all its acronyms falls to the ground.
Emma lives as though she is happy. Daniel lives as though he is performing useful labour. But we know that both are sad and neither has ever felt the pleasure of fulfilling a social function. The ingenuity of the writing allows us to see that such miseries are ineluctable. They didn’t choose to be like this and so we can forgive them.
To feel such clemency for miserable characters on a TV comedy is rare. Stand-up comedy audiences are in the habit of forgiveness – or, at least, they largely were until the recent craze for no-platforming and online shaming. The stand-up can be miserable and remain miserable throughout a set. They’re not going to have a “come to Jesus” moment, and if they did, we’d stop laughing. That these two stand-ups have moved their incapacity for inspiring growth from the stage to TV is no small feat. It means they can serve up many of the frustrations of our time.
Perhaps this account makes Rosehaven seem less like the light, eminently watchable comedy that it is, and more of a Brechtian torture. Please, don’t let my exegesis of its themes dissuade you from enjoying something that is much closer in spirit to The Castle than it is to Mother Courage. It is, in my view, very funny, and often pauses from the important work of social critique to allow two fine comedians to simply drop some great one-liners. It offers an honest glimpse of small Australian lives and is the best and broadest showcase for great Australian comedy since, well, The Katering Show. But it must be said that, like Neil Simon before them, Pacquola and McGregor have been cursed with insight. Thank goodness they are blessed with good gags.
Theatre Royal, Hobart, until November 12
MULTIMEDIA Gravity (and Wonder)
Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney, until November 27
BALLET A Russian Triple Bill
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, November 4
CLASSICAL Slava, Rodrigo & Beethoven VII
Arts Centre, Melbourne, October 30-31
Adelaide Town Hall, November 1
Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, November 5
Sydney Opera House, November 6
QPAC, Brisbane, November 7
FESTIVAL The Lost Lands
Werribee Mansion, Victoria, until October 30
PHOTOGRAPHY Diane Arbus: American Portraits
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until October 30
VISUAL ART Florilegium: Sydney's Painted Garden
Museum of Sydney, until October 30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "The Unger games". Subscribe here.