In Australia: Tuesdays, 8.40pm, Seven
In the UK: Mondays, 2.15pm, BBC One. Starts April 9 2018
Stories about city slickers who up sticks and head off to the country, where they find a better, quieter life, aren’t exactly new: think Doc Martin (and its many adaptations), Hot Fuzz, Hart of Dixie, Doc Hollywood and, erm, City Slickers. But generally, when they do head off to the country, it’s not another country.
However, 800 Words gives us just that, presenting us with a recently widowed journalist (Erik Thomson) who decides to relocate his family from Sydney, Australia, to the New Zealand coastal town he used to holiday in as a child. Whether that’s because Australian TV network Seven wanted something a little bit more exotic or its because New Zealand production company South Pacific Pictures (Outrageous Fortune, Shortland Street, Westside, The Almighty Johnsons) had got tired of trying to get funding from NZ On Screen and figured it could get more cash from Oz, I couldn’t say.
There he has to deal with all manner of disasters, including shipwrecks, dangerous sculptures, building works, nudists and his two bereaved and often sullen teenage children. But wouldn’t you know it? Thanks to the friendly but sometimes strange townspeople, it turns out that his life in his new home isn’t as bad as all that. Or at least it wouldn’t be if he didn’t insist on writing up 800 words of his thoughts about it every week for a major Australian newspaper that’s accessible over the Internet.
The show is created by James Griffin, who as well as being responsible for creating and writing most of those South Pacific Pictures shows, wrote 800 words a week for 12 years for New Zealand’s Canvas magazine, so knows what he’s talking about. Although I couldn’t get by on UK magazine pay rates for 800 words a week, let me tell you, and I’m sure hoping that Griffin dispensed more words of wisdom than Thomson does here: “Logically, the best place to start the story of a new beginning is at the beginning.” That’s 2% of your word count gone already there, mate, and I’m pretty sure any sub worth their salt is going to edit that out anyway.
Griffin’s presence also assures 800 Words a certain quality of writing, both dramatic and comedic, albeit a bit male-oriented. Here he gives former Plainclothes mate Thomson both plenty of screentime and an implausibly large bevy of mostly much younger women to chase after him. To be fair, Thomson is the show’s main draw, having starred in Seven’s long-running family comedy drama Packed To The Rafters for years and won several awards.
But it also means that bevy of women aren’t desperately well characterised yet (“My mum’s great with women’s feelings, terrible with men’s” being the most any of them gets yet) and sometimes don’t get to wear any clothes and Thomson’s teenage daughter (Melina Vidler) largely only gets to pout, hunt for phone signal and storm out of every scene.
Apart from the general joking, there’s a fair bit of comedy from Woody (The Doctor Blake Mysteries’ Rick Donald, who seems to have returned to Oz after a brief foray into the US), an implausibly thick but genial ex-pat Australian builder. As you might imagine, there are also some bittersweet moments as Thomson has to deal with the death of his wife and his children’s general misery.
But this is largely a show admittedly designed to feel a lot like Packed To The Rafters, equally admittedly without Rebecca Gibney, who’s off elsewhere on Seven with Winter. Rocking the boat, being too innovative, giving too unflattering a view of NZ are probably not on the menu. It’s intended to feel comfortable and familiar.
If you like your drama to feel like a warm hug, or you’re a fan of The Almighty Johnsons and (understandably) want to see more of Michelle Langstone and John Leigh, 800 Words could be for you.