In ABC TV’s new six-part comedy series, Helen Tudor-Fisk’s career as a contracts lawyer is on the skids. Much comedic mileage is drawn from her being a character who speaks straight from the shoulder and (to mix body-related expressions) who suffers from chronic foot-in-mouth disease. Quick to quarrel and slow to surrender, the protagonist has a habit of transforming inconsequential matters into epic donnybrooks while maintaining a “hey, it wasn’t me!” persona.
In the first episode, which delivers multiple laugh-out-loud jokes in the opening few minutes, Fisk (Kitty Flanagan) explains to a job recruitment specialist that, “I’m not really a people person” – and also “not really a dead people person either”. Despite her protestations, she ends up working at Gruber & Gruber, a shoddy firm specialising in wills and probate; its Kruger-esque boss Ray Gruber (Marty Sheargold) likes that she is a “mature lady”, but also he “can’t be arsed interviewing any more people”.
Throughout the series, Flanagan and her sister and co-writer Penny Flanagan broach ageism, sexism, and various other issues surrounding evolving social expectations and breaches of etiquette that can’t be crystallised into single words ending with “ism”. In one scene, for instance, Fisk is banned for speaking loudly at a cafe, informed by a young staff member that “your vibe is really loud” and “a lot of us find shouting really triggering”.
Part of the humour revolves around the idea that the world has left straight-shooting, “say what I think” people like Fisk behind; she must change her ways to stay professionally afloat. This is a key theme of another ABC series about a character with a big attitude and a short fuse, AfterTaste, which operates inside a more topical context: the reduced dominance of the middle-aged white man, no longer able to get away with bad behaviour on the flimsy pretence of being “talented”.
At times Flanagan – who co-directs with Tom Peterson and co-created the show with Vincent Sheehan – tiptoes through the minefield of changing social mores (unlike the excellent and edgy Gen Z-themed Why Are You Like This?, which dives right in). But mostly the comedy revolves around simple things, such as clients with unreasonable expectations and Dave O’Neil (playing a rinky-dink lawyer) inquiring about food.
Nothing in Fisk is bold or edgy but it’s fun to spend time with its cast – particularly the Gruber & Gruber crew. Julia Zemiro is amusingly priggish; Sheargold is effortlessly blasé as a man who seems to understand he’s not very good at anything; and Aaron Chen is funny in an understated performance as a receptionist who prefers to be called “the Webmaster”.
And of course there is Flanagan, who ties the cast together: a consistently entertaining, anchoring presence with down-to-earth, don’t mess with me charisma – deflated and slightly desperate at times, but always affable.
When I mentioned Fisk in my monthly streaming column, I proclaimed that if subsequent episodes were “half as good as the first” (which is all I had seen at the time; this review compasses episodes one to three), I would have no problem declaring that Flanagan’s character had “parachuted straight into the pantheon of Australia’s most memorable on-screen lawyers”. But unfortunately the initial episode sparkled in ways the second and third don’t – even reminding me of screwball farces such as His Girl Friday, in which a ping-pong effect is created in the dialogue by having actors speak unnaturally fast.
The quality of the show drops, with more and more jokes that don’t land and an increasingly wobbly and derivative structure. It’s as though the Flanagans invested the lion’s share of their wit and energy into making the debut episode tight and punchy, and then ran out of gas.
Fisk is still enjoyable but the central tension (will she keep her job?) disappears and hazily sketched plotlines have a habit of taking us away from Gruber & Gruber, where the show is best.
Yet there are problems there too. The setup allows for a constant flow of random money-hungry people to come through the door, bringing absurd demands with them. But these come-and-go characters are thinly drawn: goofy cartoonish cut-outs who function simply to give the protagonist something else to be bothered about. The initially tight, sassy vibes slacken as the series progresses.
Thank goodness for Flanagan’s performance: she holds herself well, with a very amusing contempt for all and sundry.