It doesn’t take long for the second season of Shaun Micallef’s stagey, bluster-riddled, Iannucci-lite sitcom, The Ex-PM, to unveil its greatest asset: first name John, last name Clarke. The late, beloved Australian comedian appears mere seconds into the running time, reprising his signature role – the lovable scoundrel – one last time as the chicanerous, dirt-digging dealmaker Henry, in the employ of the titular character Andrew Dugdale (Micallef, also the series writer).
All John Clarke has to do to make us miss him anew is start speaking. That wonderfully distinctive voice is a beery monotone of contradictions: intellectual but somehow workaday; common man but somehow droll savant; kind of Aussie and kind of Kiwi. The intonation of a learned but unostentatious fellow equally at home wielding a spatula as wielding Dostoyevsky.
Or as the case may be – in the opening moments of the first episode of The Ex-PM, series two – sitting in a pub and wielding a “grapefruit prosecco mimosa”.
Henry hands a politician a mustard-coloured envelope with sex photos in it, blackmailing him to get him to step aside – thus paving the way for Dugdale’s political comeback. We’ve seen this moment countless times before: an early indication that this series from director Shaun Wilson, like the last (directed by Sian Davies), has nothing remotely new or original on its mind.
As much as we may wish the focus to remain on Henry, this is, alas, Dugdale’s yarn. The floundering politician is a caricature inhabited by Micallef in a way that comes across as both deadpan and desperate. There is a Rudd-ish quality about him: puffed-up, stuffy high-handedness with a faux-cuddly, uncle-like demeanor.
While we know Rudd was squidgy in front of the cameras but psychopathic in real life (e.g. his political commentary about “Chinese fuckers” and their attempts to “rat-fuck us”) The Ex-PM never gets behind the curtain. Dugdale performs as if everybody is always watching: a constant, knowing caricature, delivered in same-old, same-old style.
When the possibility is floated to Dugdale that he might be ripe for a comeback, the former/maybe future PM responds that he will have to be delicate when he approaches his wife, Catherine (Nicki Wendt) about it. He says she “has her heart set on us spending a lot more time together.”
You know, with not a skerrick of doubt, that the next scene will play on the comedy rule of reversals. The scene then transitions, as if turning a page in a playbook, to Dugdale on the can with Catherine nearby. She calls him a “fucking idiot” and grumbles lovelessly “of course you’re going to do it.”
Most of us adore (or at least appreciate) Mad as Hell, and Shaun Micallef is a comedy institution. But that is not a good joke any way you slice it: in structure, execution, or going by simple laugh out loud factor. There were worse gags in the previous season though, so that is progress of a kind.
For example: when Dugdale’s ghostwriter Ellen Le Blanc (Lucy Honigman) was escorted, in the very first episode of the first season, through Dugdale’s house, she is shown one of the politician’s antiques clocks. Dugdale says, referring to the contents of his yet-to-be-written memoir: “I would really like to work in my collection of antique clocks.” When asked why he is fond of clocks, he eventually responds, as tick-tock tick-tock sounds continue in the background: “Well, they pass the time.”
Somebody should probably go to jail for allowing a joke that bad to go to air, not least in primetime and on the taxpayer dollar. In real life, one can offset such feeble punchlining with the caveat that one has just delivered a “dad joke”. In The Ex-PM there is nothing: just an awkward pause; and silence where the laughs should be.
Most of the comedy is a little better than that, though the second series reworks even the stodgy slapstick of the first. Last season the butter-fingered Dugdale, attempting to shoot some hoops, instead accidentally sends a basketball through a nearby window. This time around, during a media (mis)managed moment, he throws a volleyball at a small child.
There are plenty of jokes that pander to a media-savvy, metropolitan crowd (presumably the same target audience as Mad as Hell), from a hairy interview with Virginia Trioli to conversation around shock jocks (“Ray Hadley would have me back on in a heartbeat. Alan Jones too if he had one”).
The biggest problem is that Micallef is the sole writer, and boy he needed a hand. Writing good comedy is really difficult, and almost always requires multiple voices in the room. By contrast, The Thick Of It employed as many as eight writers per episode.
The Ex-PM season two isn’t all bad: at the peak of its powers the program is pleasant enough, like nondescript background music. And – thank God – it has John Clarke in it.
• The Ex-PM is on Thursday at 8:32pm on ABC TV