Gristmill have been the quiet achievers of Australian comedy for over two decades now. A production company led by the husband and wife team of Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, they’ve been responsible for a steady stream of classic comedy since making Small Tales & True for the Comedy Channel back in 1998.
In recent years they’ve pivoted towards children’s television (Little Lunch, The InBestigators), but after their pandemic series Love in Lockdown they’re back on the ABC with the half-hour anthology series Summer Love. A return to comedy? Not quite.
Each episode in this eight-part series is a self-contained story featuring a couple – or in the first episode, a couple of couples – dealing with love, relationships, and a range of personal issues as they spend time in and around an upmarket holiday home rental on Victoria’s surf coast.
Directed (mostly) by Hope & Butler and written (mostly) by a range of up-and-coming talent, those expecting a steady stream of gags might want to look elsewhere. The focus here is on the characters rather than comedy; given the choice between a moment that feels real and one that gets a laugh, expect the former – unless there’s a way to fit in both.
The opening episode, Jules & Tom & Jonah & Steph, is a solid start. The titular two couples – played by Sibylla Budd and Patrick Brammall, and Stephen Curry and Harriet Dyer (Brammall and Dyer also wrote the script) – meet for their annual couples’ getaway, only to discover that their lives are no longer on similar tracks.
Jonah and Steph have a two year old who dominates their lives (and ensures they get the good bedroom); Jules & Tom, who the script sides with for much of the episode, have gone vegan and just want some peace and quiet. Fault lines soon widen, goodwill evaporates, and their shared history no longer seems enough to build a future on.
Obviously this conflict is going to reach a head. Slightly less obviously, there’s not much to laugh about in the big final clash. These are real people with real issues, and while there’s plenty of sharp observations along the way that may raise a smile (who doesn’t find a two-year-old with a big knife funny? Oh right, their parents), nobody here is getting thrown under the bus for the sake of a laugh.
‘Don’t you be funnier than me,’ one character says to the other in episode 5 (Luke & Olly). That’s a pretty good guide to how the comedy works here. More often than not, the characters are aware enough to laugh at each other’s jokes (or be annoyed when someone’s trying to defuse the situation with humour); nobody’s dropping one-liners just for the sake of it.
It’s not surprising then that many of the episodes are written by members of the cast. The stories are for the most part tightly written and satisfyingly told, but the series overall is an actors showcase, driven as much by performance as plot.
Future episodes deal with issues like what it involves to raise an Aboriginal child, being abandoned by a parent, the conflict between society’s expectations of a gay couple versus what the couple might actually want, and an array of damaged characters and family strife. The tone is often light, at least at first, but you half expect an episode where it’s revealed the house is haunted by a spirit that thrives on drama.
Gristmill has been exploring the line between comedy and drama since before it was popular. While the episode of Summer Love that Hope and Butler wrote and starred in is perhaps the most overtly comedic of the bunch (Hope doing a hamstring is comedy gold), even that has its serious side.
Australian television needs quality drama that goes beyond small town murder mysteries. Going by Summer Love, Gristmill are exactly the ones to deliver it.
Summer Love airs weekly on the ABC at 9pm starting Wednesday August 31, and will be available on iView.