If you’re not a fan of watching two people bickering in a car, you may want to overtake this ABC comedy, says Anthony Morris.
Image: Justine Clarke in Squinters S2. Source: ABC.
ABC series Squinters is a workplace comedy where the workplace never makes an appearance. Instead we follow a band of commuters as they head into work each morning and then home again at night. If you’re making that kind of commute to and from the western suburbs of Sydney, you end up driving with the sun in your eyes both ways – hence, “Squinters”.
It’s a strong idea for a comedy series, which is probably why Squinters isn’t the first car down this particular road. Co-creator and director Trent O’Donnell was one of the people behind Stan series No Activity, where two cops sat in the front seats of their stakeout car and talked for most of each episode. In the UK, Peter Kay’s Car Share was basically the same show, only focusing on just two people travelling to and from work (plus wacky billboards and radio jokes), while Marion & Geoff stripped the idea back even further with Rob Brydon sitting in a car on his own delivering a monologue every episode for two seasons.
This second series – currently airing on the ABC Wednesdays, or you can binge all six episodes online – sticks to the commuter pattern, though some of the players have changed. The high-profile guest stars from season one (Jacki Weaver, Tim Minchin, Damon Herriman) have not returned, which has given the producers a chance to mix things up a little. But only a little: the nature of the series means that the dynamic in each car is relatively similar, so if you’re not a fan of watching two people bickering you may want to drive on.
Now broke and driving a forklift at work, Lukas (Sam Simmons) is paired off with his lawyer aunt Alison (Genevieve Morris), his equally cash-strapped younger sister Rachel (the US-based Claudia O’Doherty) and his tinsel eating dog; the now pregnant and unintentionally racist Bridget (Mandy McElhinney) has a slacker Uber-driving sister (Anne Edmonds) replacing her woke teen daughter Mia (Jenna Owen); Talia (Rose Matafeo) has had a falling out with her last season’s bestie and now Romi (Andrea Demetriades) has joined her car pool. After last season’s big US take-over their workplace has gone through some shake-ups with their new corporate boss (Kristen Schaal) is planning more to come – though an asbestos-related discovery might derail her plans (and everyone else’s).
The performers are this series’ strong point, and they do a lot with characters who’re just sitting still and staring straight ahead 90 per cent of the time. For the most part they play off each other well too, though having last seasons’ wanking expert Macca (Juston Rosniak) now paired off with a partner (Justine Clarke) who won’t let him work-wank because she wants to get pregnant feels like a nagging girlfriend set-up past its use-by date, and their developing woes over trying to conceive (eventually requiring both donor eggs and donor sperm) sounds funnier than it is.
With visual inventiveness not this series’ strong point, the dialogue has to do much of the heavy lifting as far as the comedy goes. Co-creator Adam Zwar is credited as being the series’ Head Writer and there’s definitely a scripted element here, but cast members like Sam Simmons and Kristen Schaal have also talked about the way much of their dialogue is improvised. Unfortunately, a decade or so after improvised dialogue became the next big thing in comedy (see Curb Your Enthusiasm and the films of Judd Apatow) the freshness it once promised to add to comedy scripts is long gone.
Too often here the improv-heavy dialogue leaves a scene feeling like we’re watching people messing about riffing variations on a joke rather than a segment that’s going somewhere. When Sam Simmons says “man” fifteen times in eighteen seconds in his first appearance, it’s kind of funny; when he’s repeating the word “warehouseman” again and again in episode four, the thrill has gone.
While this is a series that’s seemingly designed to be made on the cheap, a large portion of it is filmed in LA where O’Donnell is currently based. It’s a decision that doesn’t add much value for home viewers aside from appearances from a handful of US-based stars and the always funny Schaal, who was cast so late in proceedings the ABC’s initial press release last November only said “And still to be announced…a major American female comedic talent has been cast as the new CEO.”
But that’s Squinters in a nutshell: it’s a series filmed across two continents with one of Australia’s main comedy writers as a producer and a cast of sharp performers… who get to just look straight ahead and improvise lines while pretending to drive a car down some generic Sydney streets. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt for a series to aim a little higher.
2.5 stars ★★☆
Squinters Season 2
A Jungle Entertainment Production for the ABC
Directors: Trent O’Donnell, Amanda Brotchie, Christiaan Van Vuuren, Adele Vuko and Erin White
Australia, 2019, 6 half hour episodes
ABC, Wednesdays 9pm or ABC iView