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Austin, ABC review: local laughs by way of London seem a bit too loose

Michael Theo is the highlight in this UK-Australian dramedy about self-discovery and complicated relationships.
Ben Miller in Austin, ABC.

Anyone who saw the ABC’s recent reality series Love on the Spectrum knows Michael Theo. Across two seasons his search for love revealed him to be charming, likeable, and a talent in front of the camera. So to see him step up to a central role in Austin, a major ABC series, is a feel good story we should all celebrate. And the series itself? Maybe hold off on the celebrations there, just for a minute.

Julian Hartswood (series co-creator Ben Miller) is an extremely popular children’s book author. So popular that his publisher has flown him and his wife Ingrid (Sally Phillips) – who’s also his illustrator – out to Australia for a tour to promote his latest Big Bear book. So said publisher is understandably somewhat upset when Julian unknowingly re-tweets a post from a white supremacist (in his defence, it was about freedom of speech, not hate crimes) and destroys his reputation.

Instantly the tour’s off, stranding them in Canberra, and Julian’s attempt to kick-start the tour only makes things worse. Then he’s bailed up by Austin (Michael Theo), who wants a large number of books signed –and also suspects Julian might be his father.

Watch the trailer for Austin

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It’s not exactly all downhill for Julian from there. Yes, a quick check of the timeline reveals that if Julian did sleep with Austin’s mother (Gia Carides) then he did so while he was dating Ingrid, and now she’s not sure she wants to keep a personal or a professional relationship going with a cheater. But standing by Austin, the autistic son he never knew he had, might just be a way back from cancelation – according to his publisher’s PR team at least.

Destination reputation

And what of Austin in all this? His motives in meeting Julian are pretty straightforward: ‘I’m on a quest, to understand who I am and where I come from’. And while Julian might not seem overly excited about being given a print-out with ‘I Believe I’m Your Son’ on top, Austin refuses to be deterred. ‘I’ve always wanted to visit Great Britain’ he says when Julian tries to fob him off. But in the battle between Austin’s good nature and Julian’s somewhat mercenary attitude, who will come out on top?

Read: Ten Australian streaming dramas to watch in 2024

Having an extremely predictable story isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a comedy. And for periods here and there, this seems like it might provide a few decent laughs. Miller and Phillips are seasoned UK professionals, while Carides and Roy Billing (as Austin’s grandfather Bill) get a lot of mileage out of their roles. And Theo does a great job as the story’s emotional (and occasionally comedic) heart; if nothing else this is an excellent showcase for him.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that ‘nothing else’ pretty much sums up what else is on offer, and then it keeps on going on for eight episodes. Julian spends his time wobbling between self-interest and slightly better disguised self-interest without ever becoming nasty enough to be funny, while Ingrid’s personal journey is admirable but too low-key to generate much excitement. Austin would be better off without them.

Australian-British or British-Australian?

Physically this show is split between Canberra and the UK, as Julian tries to get a morally dubious documentary made about his new son, Ingrid explores the art world, and Austin ends up living his dream of travelling to London (the rest of the trip? Not so dream-like). But in every other way this feels a lot closer to a British comedy – there’s a John Major reference in the first episode – and not one of the especially memorable ones at that.

Read: ABC reveals 10 new additions to 2024 content slate

The last decade or so has seen a massive drop in the ABC’s ability to fund local television. We’re told that co-productions and overseas sales are one way to make up the shortfall in scripted series; too often the result is something that features a handful of familiar faces in supporting roles while the Australian content is largely there to fluster the overseas leads and amuse the overseas audiences that the program is aimed at.

Then again, when was the last time we saw a non-political series filmed in Canberra?

Austin premieres on ABC and ABC iView on 9 June 2024.

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3 out of 5 stars

Austin

Actors:

Michael Theo, Ben Miller, Sally Phillips, Gia Carides, Roy Billing

Director:

Darren Aston, Madeleine Dyer

Format: TV Series

Country: UK/Australia

Release: 09 June 2024

Available on:

abc iview, 8 Episodes

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.