Is television upside down Down Under?

Benighted colonials they are not: New Zealand brings a refreshing quirkiness to its programming.

Emmet Livingstone

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Being a foreigner in a country where they speak the same language as you is always confusing. Being in the farthest country where this is possible, even more so. How then to navigate the murky waters of cultural difference? Interacting with the natives is out of the question, it’s fraught with the possibility of faux pas. A better policy, as every discerning person should know, is to stay close to the couch and lap up the local flavours in the most comfortable way possible: TV.

It is hard not to look for stereotypes when they are confirmed for you on television every night. My inbuilt prejudice against a nation of rugby-lovers is confirmed by a cursory guide at a New Zealand TV guide. The schedules are replete with programmes where young braves compete to show their machismo: high mountain rescues, cop car chases etc. Filter out the pulp, though, and the most striking difference in New Zealand programming is the quality of its news output. When I say striking, I don’t mean a polite, bourgeois, fleeting impression, I mean a sledgehammer-to-the-face strike, the kind that leaves a lasting scar.

TVNZ, the national broadcaster, may as well be competing with The Sun to provide the most flippant (but by the same token entertaining) portrayal of current affairs, zipping between subjects every 15 or so seconds in random order. Quaint headlines are forgiven, given the size of the country (‘Prison guard accepts bribes’), but they seem to flow at the whim of some frenetic content-curator, obviously under strict instruction to temper factual content with equal amounts of sensationalism. Famously egalitarian though New Zealand is, I was not expecting the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be treated with the same serious regard as an interview with Russell Brand. Then again, this is the same news agency that had all-day coverage of the Hobbit film premiere.

Odder still, for the outsider, is Close Up, New Zealand’s answer to the BBC’s Newsnight. Instead of the caustic, pointed Paxman, there is Mark Sainsbury. Sporting a prodigious moustache, underneath which we catch the occasional leery grin, this man can only be described as an unsettling blend of a Hell’s Angel and Santa Claus. Here clearly is an easily understood domestic stock-character that passes completely overhead; he is considered, much like Paxman, an institution, discomforting to an observer from a post-Savilegate Britain.

The programme itself remedies the problems of pace and tone of the standard news coverage, but fails just as admirably at finding interesting stories. One 30-minute programme covers ‘revolutionary teaching techniques’, where children, wait for it, learn while they play! There’s also the obligatory piece about the Hobbit, an annoying segment on homegrown versions of Justin Bieber and a report on fast-food consumption. Such banalities would bore Buzz Killington were it not for the unwitting hilarities in the way they are presented.

For example: four men are quizzed on their diets, all being found wanting for having take-outs most of the week. Expecting the usual puritanical drivel, I am surprised by the presenter’s recommendation: ask for extra vegetables every time you get a take-out. So, the camera follows a self-conscious but esurient young man into a Asian food joint so toxic you can almost see the MSG hang in the air. He orders his food. The presenter chirps at him in the background, and he grumbles half-heartedly for some extra vegetables. Problem solved. What expiates any criticism of current-affairs programmes in New Zealand is the ludic turns ‘serious’ topics take under analysis.

Domestic drama is also in rudimentary health, surprisingly so. The comedy-drama Nothing Trivial revolves around a pub-quiz team and their various escapades and romantic tangles. It is in tune with the trend of off-beat comedy, but avoids the easy categorisation of most shows. You know what to expect from Peep Show: it will be funny because you will identify with the characters’ anomie. In Nothing Trivial though, it seems like any eventuality is on the cards, with the practical ‘She’ll be alright in the end’ culture morphed into bizarro comedy of the first order.

In a side narrative, one character is convicted of assault and subsequently makes a suicide attempt which is taken seriously, soap-opera style, until on a hospital gurney she remembers what’s really important in life: the pub quiz. Yes, suicide is a laughing matter Down Under and television is all the better for it. Of course, as with the news, I’m left wondering whether the joke is intentional, or if I’m just being mean.

Emmet Livingstone is a former intern at spiked.

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