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Australian Epic, ABC review: history played to new tunes

The new six-part series wants to remind of classic moments from our recent past, but with a twist: musical numbers!

Australia loves a comedy re-enactment. Or at least, television programmers seem to think so: this year alone we’ve already had The Betoota Advocate Presents casting a comedy eye back over Australia’s biggest scandals, while those with longer memories may recall the local version of Drunk History, or even Hamish & Andy’s series of re-enactments of regular people’s wacky adventures True Stories.

Now the ABC’s six part series Australian Epic promises to remind us of yet more classic moments from our recent past, but with a twist: musical numbers! Wait, come back, they’re co-written by The Chaser’s Andrew Hansen, he’s actually good at this kind of thing.

Something akin to a local version of Norwegian series Stories From Norway – it was originally titled Stories From Oz when it was first announced back in late 2021, though there’s no mention of the Norwegian version in the credits – Australian Epic mixes traditional documentary style storytelling with, as previously mentioned, a lot of singing.

Scripted by The Chaser’s Chris Taylor and Andrew Hansen, and with a cast that includes Phoenix Jackson Mendoza, Michelle Brasier, Fiona Choi, Sami Afuni, Nicholas Kong, and Amy Lehpamer, it takes a more down-to-earth approach than the Norwegian version. That was the product of an already established musical comedy duo, and often veered into the strange and surreal while telling the tale of (for example) Justin Beiber cancelling an Oslo concert after one song.

The Australian version largely relies on the fact that it’s retelling historical events via musical numbers for its comedy; in many ways the concept is the joke, though the songs themselves are witty and often impressive musically.

Episode one recounts the story of Steve Bradbury, the ice skater who won Olympic gold in 2002 after everyone in front of him fell over. There’s talking head interviews with him and his family, a solid recap of his injury-packed career, and a series of very well crafted and amusing musical numbers (Hansen plays Bradbury). So it’s a success? Not so fast.

An episode of two halves

In the first episode at least, the two halves don’t quite fit. The documentary side of things is perfectly fine, with the main players all present and accounted for; the musical numbers are polished and impressive, with catchy tunes and snappy lyrics. But the story being told in this episode doesn’t need both.

If the goal is to tell the Steven Bradbury story, then the songs don’t add enough to justify their presence; they stick too close to what we’re being told by the documentary participants to add anything substantial, and the shift between big musical numbers and talking head documentary is often jarring. There’s a musical number about him getting a second opinion after suffering (yet another) career-ending injury – the song is worthwhile on its own, but it’s still three minutes that can be summed up as ‘so I got a second opinion’.

Later episodes make it clear that a big part of the problem with the first episode is that if you have access to the main players, you don’t need musical numbers. Often with Bradbury’s story a song is just illustrating something we’ve already been told; it’s interesting to learn that his strategy in his big final race was to hang back (as he wasn’t fast enough to beat the pack), but it’s not so interesting that we need have a musical number also telling us exactly that.

Getting stronger

In contrast, the second episode, which looks at Tasmanian Mary Donaldson’s rise to become a Princess of Denmark, does not feature Princess Mary (or any other member of the Danish royal family). Their absence gives the musical numbers a much clearer role in telling her story, and it’s a stronger episode for it.

Future episodes will present the story of Johnny Depp bringing his two dogs into Queensland without declaring them to customs, the saga of Melbourne’s doomed Docklands Ferris wheel, Schapelle Corby’s adventures in the drug trade and – in something of a change of pace for the final episode – the Tampa affair. Maybe don’t expect too many laughs in that one.

The ABC can’t get enough of informational comedy programs. If they can combine informing the audience with the occasional joke, they’ll put it to air whether it’s Gruen or Question Everything or WTFAQ. But Australian Epic occasionally feels a little too reverent towards its subject matter.

Having more fun with history might have created a series that was more fun to watch; the joke here is that for all the care and effort that’s gone into telling these stories, as far as comedy goes this Epic isn’t very epic at all.

Australian Epic debuts Wednesday 8 November at 9pm on ABC TV and ABC iView, with episodes airing weekly.

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.