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White Fever, ABC review: more than ‘maybe I need to bang Asian dudes’

Ra Chapman's new series spotlights complex and likeable characters against a backdrop of race, identity and belonging.
A young woman in a bar with a pink cowboy hat and blue spangly bodysuit, with a pink sash, points into the distance as if choosing something or someone, in a publicity still for White Fever on ABC.

Over the last decade or so, the term ‘comedy’ has been thrown around so much that it’s become pretty much meaningless as far as Australian television goes. If it’s about young people and nobody gets attacked or killed? Chances are it’ll be promoted as a comedy whether there’s a joke in there or not.

So it’s refreshing to see that the press kit for White Fever – a half-hour series airing in the ABC’s traditional 9pm Wednesday night comedy timeslot – doesn’t mention comedy anywhere at all outside of the cast and crew biographies.

Even the statement from creator and star Ra Chapman doesn’t mention the c-word. Instead, she says the series is ‘about the messiness of life. About thinking everything’s fine and dandy, only to have the rug ripped out from under you’. So should you go into White Fever expecting to laugh? Or is it a show about some serious subjects that doesn’t always take itself too seriously?

When it comes to the bedroom, Jane Thomas (Chapman) knows what she likes. And what she likes are hairy white guys. Which is a problem, because her friends are starting to suggest that her dating preferences might be a little … problematic.

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Her best friend Edi (Katie Robertson) is about to marry a Hmong Australian man; she also thinks Jane (who’s Korean and was adopted by white parents) is ‘whiter than most white people’. Her workmate Charlie (Harvey Zielinski) is certain Jane has a (white, hairy) type, and when the latest example of said type calls her a ‘fake Asian’ for not being on board with his cultural stereotypes, she starts to worry that she might actually have ‘white fever’.

In the wrong hands all this could fall very flat, and the ABC doesn’t have the strongest track record when it comes to series trying to wring edgy comedy out of relationships (anyone remember Laid?). Fortunately, Chapman knows exactly what she’s doing here.

Read: ABC iview: new shows streaming April 2024

Jane’s questioning of her sexual preferences rapidly leads her to more personal issues about her own past, shifting White Fever’s focus onto examining her friendships, the Korean diaspora, and the tricky business of an adoptee exploring her birth heritage. Her love life is still a bit of a mess, but it’s a product of her deeper issues.

To be fair, as the series progresses a few out-there ideas are thrown into the mix. In one episode, Jane’s (extremely white) childhood doll Cindy comes to life to block her attempts at progress; in another she gets ahold of an Asian sex doll in an attempt to loosen up her libdo. K-Pop musical numbers could happen at any moment and often do.

While there’s a number of scenes based on concepts that seem a little silly, they’re used to illustrate Jane’s real fears and struggles with her identity. You might laugh when they first turn up, but as the episodes go on it’s clear that they’re a serious – if still a bit out there – part of her expedition towards understanding.

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It all makes for entertaining, engaging viewing. Jane is a likeable protagonist on a journey that’s a lot more complex and thoughtful than the initial ‘maybe I need to bang Asian dudes’ premise. It’s a story told with warmth and insight, featuring a range of characters that are treated with depth and empathy.

But is it funny? It doesn’t take long to realise that this is the kind of story where you probably don’t want a lot of cheap jokes being thrown around. The characters can (and do) say funny things, but jokes aren’t the main item on the menu.

Questions about race, identity and belonging are front and centre here: once past the initial concept, this is a series that’s fully invested in treating Jane’s search seriously. Which isn’t surprising, as in some ways it mirrors Chapman’s own personal journey exploring her identity as a Korean adopted by white parents.

For the viewers at home, it’s a journey worth taking.

White Fever premieres on 10 April at 9pm on ABC TV, with all episodes available to stream on iview.

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4 out of 5 stars

Actors:

Ra Chapman, Greg Stone, Roz Hammond, Harvey Zielinski

Director:

Aidee Walker

Format: TV Series

Country: Australia

Release: 10 April 2024

Available on:

abc iview, 6 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.