Review: Shaun Micallef Has A Great Sitcom In Him; ‘The Ex-PM’ Isn’t It

Is Shaun Micallef playing the future Wyatt Roy? That’s a question more fun to ponder than the show itself.

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Shaun Micallef, let’s be very clear, is a comedy genius.

I have loudly, frequently and correctly declared that The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) is the only sketch comedy show that Australia has ever produced that can hold its against the classic likes of Kids In The Hall, the State or Mr Show, while Newstopia and Mad As Hell demonstrated that he has an astonishingly sharp gift for political satire.

He’s also a solid actor (Sea Change) and a perfect game show host (Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation) — and if Channel Nine’s Micallef Tonight chat show was clearly doomed from the outset, it still had moments of pure, unadulterated genius.

The one thing that he’s not been able to nail is situation comedy, as anyone who can remember Welcher & Welcher can attest — and this is the point in my review where I genuinely wish I could write “…but with The Ex-PM he finally brought together his political acumen, his Cleeseian high-status-fool persona and his understanding of the Australian psyche,” rather than what I am instead writing, which is this: on the basis of the first three episodes, there’s a brilliant idea in The Ex-PM that never manages to come out.

Andrew Dugdale was the third longest-standing PM in Australian history, but after his under-house-arrest business manager got his assets frozen (John Clarke, via telelink), he’s now only got weeks to submit his million-dollar autobiography and stave off creditors. Enter perky young journalist Ellen (Lucy Honigman) who quickly gets the measure of her subject and his straitened circumstances within the household; enter also his two-faced chief of staff Sonny (Nicholas Bell), the disinterested Mrs Dugdale, Catherine (Nicki Wendt), drug-addled daughter Carol (Kate Jenkinson), dim-witted driver Curtis (Francis Greenslade), and inept security chief Myles (Jackson Tozer).

This is the point at which hilarity should ostensibly ensue.

Written by Micallef (without his regular writing partner Gary McCaffrie), part of the problem with this sitcom is the “sit” part. There are no shortage of shows focussing on politicians struggling to maintain their dignity, from Yes Minister to The Thick Of It to Veep, which cast a very long shadow over The Ex-PM.

Another unfortunate coincidence for the comedy-savvy viewer is that the basic premise – financially-strapped has-been, forced to write their autobiography via a young, female ghostwriter – is the exact same as that of the debut season of Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman.

However, the biggest problem is that of Micallef as Dugdale, the titular Ex-PM.

Micallef’s great talent – indeed, the basis of much of his comedy persona – is in playing an authoritative idiot desperately trying to extricate himself from a situation, inevitably making things worse. He’s a genius at it, and it’s fertile ground for comedy.

And we see elements of that in the show – Dugdale destroying things he’s trying to fix; being cuckolded by his grasping harpy of a wife with his own chief of staff; trying and failing to win the admiration of his daughter and grandchild; being berated in the street by contemptuous constituents – but that gormlessness is undercut by the premise that Dugdale was an exceptionally successful and popular leader of the nation.

Indeed, it’s made clear that only Menzies and Howard served longer than Dugdale (and yes, all previous PMs up to Abbott also exist in the world of this show, which is another problem to which we will come shortly). So: why did the show not make him a Billy McMahon-style caretaker PM?

The disaster that is his post-public life seems better-suited to an average MP elevated to the top job largely by luck, who is proved woefully out of his depth before losing after a single term. Then the show could have played to Micallef’s reality-vs-self-image strengths, showing an objectively lousy leader attempting to use his ghostwriter to rewrite his own shoddy legacy in a more positive light.

The idea that he served four terms also creates a timeline problem. We know this can’t be any earlier than 2015, since there’s a joke about Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House. So, if we assume four terms of three years, and that he’s not been out of office that long, that means The Ex-PM is set in… what, 2028?

And since Micallef is 53, Dugdale would have been barely in his forties when first electe… hold on, is Dugdale actually Wyatt Roy? Is this a terrifying vision of the future????

The rest of the too-large cast are barely ciphers. Old hands Bell and Clarke are reliably good, and regular Micallef foil Greenslade plays another in his repertoire of one-note grotesques, but Honigman reads her lines like it’s a NIDA audition – and she’s still head and shoulders above the rest of the Dugdale household.

Even the throwaway gags could have been something better. The running joke about a non-English speaking housekeeper (thanklessly played by Ming-Zu Hii) who complains endlessly in a mix of languages without anyone understanding her adds nothing beyond, “Hey, foreign languages sound funny!” – at least, unless there’s a payoff waiting late in the series.

(And look, if it was so key to have a character that no-one understands, why not have her speak Mandarin and have the joke be that she was hired by Kevin Rudd, and that she’s diplomatically impossible to fire? At least then her presence in this dysfunctional household would make sense beyond some vague suggestion that she’s on a 459 visa because… um, she’s cheaper? Because Dugdale was a champion of liberalised labour markets? Because Gina Rinehart made him? At least in the first three episodes, it’s never made clear.)

The dialogue is often weirdly stilted, often seeming like a book idea translated into a script. Even lines that read as laugh-out-loud funny (“Why did it take so long to bring the car around? Was it unconscious?”) fail to land on-screen.

In short, The Ex-PM feels like a draft of a great idea, frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.

The Ex-PM airs on Wednesdays at 9.05pm, on the ABC.

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-built, Sydney-based journalist, editor, critic and columnist. His new book, The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, is out now through Allen & Unwin. He tweets from @AndrewPStreet