Common Sense: four things we learned from the Gogglebox-style news show

Ordinary Australians give their opinion on the day’s news and current affairs in a reality TV show we probably didn’t need

From the folks behind the watching-regular-people-watching-television smash hit Gogglebox comes another slice of ultra-low-budget content creation. In the new reality series, Common Sense, a bunch of Australians from different walks of life, at their places of work, talk about the news stories of the day. There are no sets, no costumes, just ’Strayans not doing their jobs and yabbering among themselves instead.

We meet Aileen, Ted and Jean, who appear to be hanging out in the lounge of their retirement village; real estate agents Jake and Ayden, who conveniently have plenty of props in their cubicles; the potato-slinging Yip family (Darren, Trudi, Aileen and Matthew), who are market stallholders; indie removalists Laurence and Brett; and many more people for whom arguing about the news stories of the day clearly doesn’t get in the way of making a living.

So what did episode one teach us about the news and, more importantly, ourselves?

1. Nobody really disagrees in Australia

In the land of Common Sense, we’re a remarkably even-tempered lot. Supposed hot-button issues like marriage equality evoke opinions ranging from “legislate it now” to “why hasn’t it been legislated yet?”, and while there were some pro-Trump comments among the very vocal criticisms of the American president’s Twitter tirade against US anchor Mika Brzezinski, they were more of the “he’s hilarious, look at him wind people up” variety than “this world leader makes a good point in a reasoned and articulate manner”.

And that’s encouraging at first glance but comment threads online would indicate that this broad centrist consensus is perhaps not entirely representative of the wider Australian opinionscape.

Participants in the show, Common Sense
Participants in the show Common Sense. Photograph: Network Ten

2. Not all news is created equal

News shows are like jazz: it’s the notes they don’t play that are most significant.

Obviously not all news can be covered in 47 minutes-plus-Neighbours-bumpers. Maybe the producers felt that Christopher Pyne’s leaked comments on same-sex marriage, the cuts to Sunday penalty rates and Larissa Waters’ in-Senate breastfeeding fulfilled the “politics” quota of the show. But you could also argue that some of the most potentially contentious issues were ignored in favour of pseudoscience on whether the elderly benefit from more frequent bonking.

Perhaps it is more illustrative to look at the stories that were not covered. For example: the continuing fight over the proposed Adani mine; the revelation that two Australians were mistakenly detained on Christmas Island; the ongoing closure of the Manus Island refugee camp; and the ongoing destabilisation of the Turnbull government by Abbott.

It is, however, worth noting that just about everybody in the show does a note-perfect impersonation of Pyne. Maybe we’re not so different after all, Australia.

3. ‘Authentic’ Australia is very shiny

We all know how reality TV works: almost no one is immediately pithy off the cuff, so you need to forgive some occasionally brutal editing – that, or the editors have been watching a lot of Michael Bay action films.

The show goes to some effort to establish the premise that this is a genuinely representative cross-section of Australian society: from the working-class to the affluent; from the retired to the millennial; from Chinese working families to Greek hairdressing teams; from leftie removalists and tech-biz freelancers to aspirational conservative butchers. It’s a mix of ages, classes, backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities, and never quite descends into complete stereotyping.

The upshot is that it feels a bit like Australia is made up of quirky secondary characters from modern sitcoms. Presumably, somewhere just off-screen, half a dozen more conventionally attractive 20-somethings are busy living, learning and loving.

The alternative possibility is that this is an elaborate simulacrum of a better Australia than the one we live in. After all, if you looked hard enough around Australia, you might be able to find one cocky real estate agent that you don’t immediately want to seal in a sack and hurl into the ocean. But two? That stretches credulity.

Participants in the show Common Sense
Aileen, Ted and Jean, just hanging out, discussing the news of the day. Photograph: Network Ten

4. We didn’t need this show after all

Aside from creating very cheap television, what’s the actual point of Common Sense?

It deserves praise for not deliberately framing everything as a confrontation between left and right viewpoints expressed by people who need to yell their way to a stalemate, but … well, who cares?

That’s not a rhetorical question either. Is there really anyone in Australia in 2017 thinking: “Never mind Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, internet comment threads, broadsheet newspapers, talk radio and every single broadcast and cable network: where can I find hot takes about issues of the day, expressed by people that don’t especially know what they’re talking about? I know, free-to-air TV once a week!”

Had this show launched in the 90s, it might have been a fascinating voyeuristic look at sides of Australia one might not necessarily see, but in 2017 it’s a greater challenge to hack through the relentless jungle of comments to get to actual facts. The idea that Australia is hungering for Ten to provide a bonus hour of it on a Thursday night seems optimistic.

Maybe Common Sense is a bit too common these days.

Common Sense is showing on Ten, Thursdays at 8.30pm


Andrew P Street

The GuardianTramp

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