Squinters review – Tim Minchin and Jacki Weaver take the low road in glib commuter comedy

ABC TV delivers a healthy dose of laughs alongside frivolous word salads in this patchy and meandering gabfest

Remember that old episode of The Simpsons in which Homer enters a magical portal and is transported into the real world? The more I watch the comedian Sam Simmons, the more I come to think perhaps this episode was inspired by actual events – that the 40-year-old performer was a former Springfield resident who snuck through the portal undetected.

No comic in Australian history has looked so much like a cartoon character. Despite no shortage of dick jokes in his standup routines, Simmons is a “waist-up comedian”: his face is so animated he doesn’t need the rest of his body. He is, then, a perfect choice for ABC TV’s six-part comedy series, Squinters, in which he plays a flustered George Costanza-like everyman caught behind the wheel during the daily rush-hour commute.

The series was co-created by Trent O’Donnell (No Activity) and Adam Zwar (Wilfred, and the Agony series). It’s no surprise then that Squinters is Agony Aunt/Uncle/random commuter stuck in traffic. It’s not just Seinfeldian but reminiscent of a particular Seinfeld episode: 1998’s The Puerto Rican Day, when Jerry and the gang got caught driving through a street parade.

The first episode opens with Simmons sharing a vehicle with the beloved Jacki Weaver, who doesn’t appear again until episode four. They play mother and son: embittered middle management type Lukas (Simmons) and Audrey (Weaver), a caustic grump unsympathetic about her child’s troubles at work. She also blames the dog on the back seat for her farts.

Lukas (Sam Simmons) and Audrey (Jacki Weaver) in the ABC TV comedy series Squinters
Lukas (Sam Simmons) and Audrey (Jacki Weaver) play a mother and son in Squinters. Photograph: ABC TV

In another car, Paul (Tim Minchin) is a delivery driver who set up a fake carpool to spend private time with a colleague he fancies, Romi (Andrea Demetriades, seen in Seven Types of Ambiguity and Adam & Eve). Minchin tries his best to make Paul endearing in a bumbling but well-meaning sort of way, but he can’t transcend this fundamentally creepy premise.

Other cast members include Damon Herriman as barrister Miles, Mandy McElhinney as time-strapped professional mother Bridget, Wayne Blair (director of The Sapphires and Cleverman) as her potential love interest, and a pair of best friends (Susie Youssef and Rose Matafeo) whose relationship is tested when one of them gets a promotion. Most of the characters work for the fictitious goods dispatch company Kosciuszko, the scope of the show strictly limited to their trips to and from work.

A theme emerges regarding the delivery of comedy in politically correct times, when opinionated people (and there are many in this show) believe they have to watch what they say, even in private. The series writers (Zwar, Lally Katz, Sarah Scheller, Adele Vuko, Leon Ford and Ben Crisp) are well aware of a sensitive modern culture, extracting laughs by probing their limitations.

Romi comments that Paul’s choice of van colour – white – is creepy: the colour of choice for psychopaths, she says. The driver launches into a passionate defence, exclaiming: “You wouldn’t say that about a black van or a yellow van.” To which Romi responds: “Don’t make this a race thing.”

Simoni (Susie Youseff) and Talia (Rose Matafeo) in ABC TV’s comedy series Squinters
Simoni (Susie Youseff) and Talia (Rose Matafeo) in Squinters: its scope is strictly limited to the characters’ trips to and from work. Photograph: ABC TV

Current sensibilities have even influenced bong-head forklift operator Macca (Justin Rosniak, who played a bandage-wrapped bogan in Down Under). This rough-as-guts fellow acknowledges that yelling crude come-ons to pretty women from passing cars just isn’t what it used to be. “I’d love to get to know you in a non-threatening setting!” he hollers to someone or other, ruefully acknowledge to his driver (Steen Raskopoulos): “You’ve got to be careful not to yell out anything degrading these days.”

Consistency with that theme – or any other – is patchy at best, and it’s quite possible the writers were not so much making a point as acting in the interests of career self-preservation. But one wouldn’t want to think too much about it. It’s clear early on that Squinters will be a glib and meandering gabfest that gives its actors plenty of room to flap their arms and squawk.

There’s a healthy quota of laughs, with an irregular tempo perhaps explained by how the hodgepodge of directors (O’Donnell, Amanda Brotchie, the Van Vuuren Bros, Kate McCartney and Cate Stewart) divided their work: by character segments rather than episodes (meaning everybody directs every episode). There are occasional ho-hum spots, then: pow – you’re laughing again.

Squinters won’t send audiences into paroxysms of delight but it’s good, tightly packed comedy, kept bouncy and fun by a thoroughly appealing cast … including the guy who may or may not be a cartoon character.

Squinters is on ABC TV Wednesdays at 9pm and is available to stream on iView


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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