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ABC’s In Limbo offers a spirited look at male friendship

The broadcaster's new sitcom suggests that sometimes our best friends are the dead ones.

Content warning: this article discusses suicide.

‘I know this is weird, but it’s happening. I’m stuck in Limbo, and you’re stuck with me.’

Charlie (Ryan Coor) is a Brisbane crane operator with a problem. His wife left him a year ago and he’s struggling to get back into dating. Fortunately his best mate Nate (Bob Morely) has set him up with a winner. But that was ten days ago: now Nate is dead and Charlie’s got to give the eulogy at his funeral.

Just to make things massively more complicated, Nate’s spirit – who is in surprisingly high spirits for a dead guy – is hanging around, and only Charlie can see him. Nate thinks it’s because they’re best friends and only Charlie can help guide him to where he’s meant to go. As for Charlie, he’s too busy freaking out to know what to think.

Sitcoms about people with a magical friend only they can communicate with are as old as Mr Ed (or if you like your sitcoms animated, The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones). It’s a sure-fire formula for wacky mix-ups and hilarious switcharoos … or at least, it was 60 years ago, and it’s still going strong with the various international versions of Ghosts.

So what does In Limbo have to offer to set itself apart from the pack? How about a serious examination of 21st century masculinity.

While Charlie knows that Nate’s spirit lives on, everyone around him is still grieving. In Limbo does not go for laughs in the scene where Charlie finds Nate’s body, nor does it shy away from showing Nate’s wife Freya (Emma Harvie) recoil in horror at the news that her husband is dead. So there’s a certain level of emotional reality established here; there’s also a ghost cracking dad jokes about buying coffins and more than one attempted assault involving a dildo.

Sitcoms and tragedy

Some dramedies strive to encompass the full spectrum of existence, refusing to be constrained by arbitrary genre boundaries. Others leave you feeling like you’re watching something not funny enough to be a sitcom, not weighty enough to be a drama. In Limbo doesn’t quite fall into that trap, thanks in large part to the performances. But if you’re going to present the death of a much-loved husband and father in the prime of life as a heartfelt tragedy, when you swerve into comedy later on the jokes do need to be good ones.

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Things get more interesting as they go along. Both Nate and Freya’s families have firm opinions about what comes next, while Charlie’s love life gets increasingly complicated in ways that are less charming and more ‘don’t go there’. Meanwhile, Nate has a range of schemes he hopes will propel him into the afterlife (stage one: remove some dodgy graffiti he did on a church wall); he also has a number of personal mysteries to which he can’t – or won’t – reveal the answers.

Despite an early mention of an ominous trip to the doctor, it turns out that Nate killed himself, and he won’t tell Charlie why. On an emotional level, it makes sense: suicide is often inexplicable to those left behind. On a story level, it’s a little frustrating, and further mysteries (Freya discovers Nate transferred a large sum of money to an unknown account before his death) also don’t quite work when the man with the answers is right there refusing to give them.

Chemistry

This series’ biggest strength is Nate and Charlie. Both Coor and Morely give strong performances in roles that require a lot of range, and their chemistry goes a long way towards making many of the series’ more out-there elements work. They’re a double act that’s a lot of fun to watch, even when the series around them threatens to stumble into ‘wacky scheme of the week’ territory.

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In Limbo is basically a story about two men’s friendship (even if one of them is dead) that looks to go deeper than just the usual banter. It doesn’t always find the heart of things, but a certain distance feels more realistic at times. We see why Nate and Charlie became friends as kids, and we see them as best mates as adults.

Sometimes people just get along and want to do right by each other. Sometimes that’s enough for three hours of television.

In Limbo premieres on the ABC on 24 May at 9pm, with all episodes available on iView.

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Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.