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Gold Diggers review: ABC comedy glisters but rarely shines

The 1850s Victorian gold rush is ripe for comedy but this broad and bawdy series sometimes feels like a summer-camp talent show.

It’s 1853, and the colony of Victoria is gripped by gold fever. The poor but plucky Brewer sisters, Gert (Claire Lovering, Class of ’07) and Marigold (stand-up comedian Danielle Walker), head to the goldfields at Dead Horse Gap, keen to strike it lucky.

But the gold they’re after comes attached to a man. Preferably a hot, newly rich one, but at least an old one who’ll swiftly make them rich widows.

Their first stop: a mansion where their old Sydney slum pal Fran (Megan Wilding) is ensconced with her rich, idiotic and clearly gay husband Percy Lestrange (Luke Mullins) and his saucy butler Jerome (Wil King). But ‘Francesca Lestrange’ sends them packing before they can tell Percy she’s not ‘from Paris, via Melbourne’.

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So what are Gert and Goldie to do now? Over eight half-hour episodes, their vague plan to bluff their way into wealth never really gets a proper ‘hard launch’ – as Gert calls it – due to the sisters’ fondness for carousing, and their encounters with various colourful locals, including hapless young cop Leonard (Brandon McClelland), wise ‘night wench’ Marlene (Susan-Ann Walker), local panty-sniffing pervert Fergus (Huw Higginson) and teenage wheeler-dealer Kelvin (Semisi Cheekam).

The Brewer sisters anger fussy bourgeois church lady Tippy (Michala Banas), and make unexpected allies in Aboriginal fur trader Vic (Perry Mooney), her sarcastic bestie Molly (Kartanya Maynard) and Molly’s goofy little brother Albert (Aaron McGrath).

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Goldie falls for dumpling-slinging hunk Ben (George Zhao), whose big sister Zhi Ling (JJ Fong) rules the local Chinatown … And they’ll get a visit from their mum Colleen (Heather Mitchell), who’s in a very open relationship with God.

They, too, have a dark secret: back home in Sydney they were mixed up in a bloke’s suspicious death. They may be confirmed hussies, thieves and aspiring con artists, but are they murderers?

Strumpet history

I honestly can’t think of many Australian historical-pastiche TV comedies except Drunk History: Australia (which featured an acting appearance by Bjorn Stewart, one of Gold Diggers’ three directors). I mean, I’m showing my age that my thoughts drifted to ‘The Olden Days’, The Late Show’s overdubbed parody of 1970s period-drama series Rush.

But history presents a rich seam – pardon my pun – for UK comedies including Blackadder, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, Horrible Histories, Ghosts, Plebs, Upstart Crow and heaps more.

Internationally, the biggest ‘historical comedy’ successes are probably Stan’s The Great and Apple TV+’s Dickinson – although Another Period (Paramount+), from the makers of Drunk History, mashes up Downton Abbey and The Kardashians to satirise America’s “Gilded Age” before Julian Fellowes gave the same era the Downton treatment in 2022. 

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The 1850s gold rush is ripe for comedy: a wild time when people from all over the world, rich and poor, had to rub shoulders in new towns that had sprung up from nowhere. And they partied hard, because there was no other entertainment for miles.

But next to New Gold Mountain, the broad and bawdy Gold Diggers feels like a summer-camp talent show. The word ‘irreverent’ is so mealy-mouthed, but this show really could take place anywhere, anytime – there aren’t many historically specific jokes.

The ABC made Gold Diggers with US network CBS, and perhaps a hope for international sales accounts for its generic feel. Local pub the Shady Duck feels like a ‘Wild West saloon’, even though the longsuffering publican Barry (Eddie Perfect) offers a lecture that women aren’t legally allowed in the bar.

The vibe, in other words, is very broad, and only vaguely historical.

‘Tent trash

At this genre’s best, the social satire is naturalistically embedded into the comedy, which gets its zing from the hindsight of the viewer’s contemporary perspective. But the characterisation and dialogue in Gold Diggers are doggedly anachronistic in a way I found really jarring at first, like someone making fun of Gen Z slang. Here’s how the protagonists are introduced:

‘All right, sis, are you ready to do this?’

‘I’m not not ready.’

‘Fire up, bitch!’

‘Fire up, bitch!’

‘Vibe check?’

‘Honestly, vibe is pumpin’.’

It does get much better from there; but Gold Diggers constantly wants you to know it understands and disapproves of how gross and antiquated its own central premise is. Creator Jack Yabsley was the only white man in an agreeably diverse writers’ room; co-writer Shontell Ketchell also acted as the show’s First Nations Associate Producer.

But it took me several episodes to warm up to the self-consciously contemporary progressivism of Gold Diggers – particularly the way it initially uses the Aboriginal characters as a humourless chorus to make Gert and Goldie feel temporarily bad about their white privilege. By episode four, however, their dynamic gets fleshed out and they get some better jokes.

At this point I’d got used to the show’s humour. I actually laughed aloud when Gert bluffs her way through a date with a hunky visiting pastor (Chris Alosio): ‘I’m a huge churchie! Body of Christ – yum, amirite?’

Episode three – in which a gang of bushrangers led by the glamorous JJ (Lincoln Younes) comes to town – also has fun with softboi stereotypes, as Marigold is briefly diverted by sensitive gap-year robber Fab (Toby Blome).

Lovering and Walker have a fun dynamic – Gert’s the schemer, Goldie’s the dreamer. But for me they’re really the straight characters: foils for the very broad clowning from the side characters.

Megan Wilding is one of the deftest. A sequence from episode two, flashing back to how Fran laid the PR groundwork for her own audacious marriage to Percy, is deeply hilarious, featuring Wilding in a range of ridiculous costumes with even sillier accents.

Crinoline-clad ‘Francesca’, sporting the worst fake French accent ever, is clearly lampooning the stereotypes of 19th-century social climbing; but Wilding brings a weird groundedness to the character; she’s even funnier for simmering with suppressed fury at being trapped forever in this absurd ruse, and fear at the possibility of being unmasked.

Having seen the first four episodes, I’m hoping the show will keep getting funnier. But it takes a while to find any more than fool’s gold.

Gold Diggers premieres on Wednesday 5 July at 9:10pm on ABC TV and streams on ABC iview.

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).