21 January 2010 | Muldwych
Retreads Old Ground, But Still Quite Entertaining
'The Jesters' centres around a television comedian past the glory days of his career nurturing a younger generation of talent and the many off-screen dramas involved in putting together half an hour of comedy every week. Although not intentionally mockumentary in style, the behind-the-scenes nature of the story brings it into the same arena as earlier and indeed more original successes 'Frontline' and 'The Games'. 'Frontline' in particular stands tall above 'The Jesters', having already looked into the machinations of the television industry over a decade earlier, and although writers Kevin Brumpton and Angus Fitzsimmons do their level best to carve out a new angle in the commentary by focusing on comedy rather than current affairs, it's still a rose by any other name, breaking no new ground. However, being unoriginal isn't always synonymous with failure, and while 'The Hollowmen' was a dull and uninspiring attempt to redo the superior 'Grass Roots' and 'Corridors of Power', 'The Jesters' manages to recapture the style of its own predecessors with far greater success - at the end of the first episode, I was in no doubt that I wanted to see more, and before I knew it, the whole season had flown by, and it was a fun ride.
Doubtless, the writers' long record in television script writing is part of the reason - while I wouldn't say I've been entertained by every effort ('Comedy Inc' springs to mind), they demonstrate in 'The Jesters' a honed skill for the fast-paced ironic humour required to attack the subject matter. The premise was obviously inspired by The Chasers, and while Brumpton and Fitzsimmons either don't like or don't really understand their humour (the constant references to satire not being funny are a bit of a giveaway and sabotage any serious attempt at lampooning the Chaser oeuvre), putting the fictional Jesters more with the slapstick/sketch comedy crowd, it doesn't affect the ultimate aims of the mockumentary sit-com. The other key ingredient that brings 'The Jesters' above the level of mediocre rehash has to be the casting. Mick Molloy is perfectly-cast as the middle-aged showbiz veteran, beyond the days when his un-pc larrakin brand of humour is either acceptable or entertaining, and desperately trying to recapture past fame. Molloy proved numerous times through the course of the Noughties that he isn't funny on his own, but is eminently watchable performing someone else's material and practicing his craft as part of an ensemble. This is quite possibly his first decent television appearance since 'The Late Show' and hopefully its success will get the message across. Teaming him up with Deborah Kennedy was also a good move, likewise the talented Emily Taheny. The four Jesters themselves are played by names I'm not familiar with, but they competently bring to life four very different personalities from which much of the conflict is drawn. Special mention should also go to Susie Porter, who plays the programme's long-suffering network executive liason, which Porter expertly captures in many a facial expression. There are also some enjoyable guest star turns from such names as Steve Vizard, Mark Mitchell and Henri Szeps.
It really does seem a long time since Working Dog Productions first opened up the entertainment industry to much-deserved ridicule and clever deconstruction. They helped raise the bar for Australian comedy, and it's a shame that we are today still seeing only re-applications of what has become a formula for 'intelligent' comedy. 'The Jesters' is the latest incarnation of this stagnation, but at least to my mind, a worthy and memorable one.