Review: The Family Law 1×1 (Australia: SBS2)


In Australia: Thursdays, 8.30pm, SBS2
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Most people’s idea of ‘an Australian’ is probably someone who looks a bit like this.

Crocodile Dundee

However, this is not 100% accurate. It’s probably not even 10% accurate. This man does not represent all Australians.

In particular, roughly 12% of the Australian population are of Asian descent. This is something you might not realise from the plethora of Australian actors now jobbing in the US and the UK, unless you watch The Librarians or you spotted the ubiquitous Dichen Lachman in something sci-fi and noticed her accent wobbled a bit.

Dichen Lachman

You might not even have noticed this if you watch Australian TV shows, since although ABC has been making strides in featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in shows such as Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, Black Comedy, and 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, Asian-Australians have shown up only infrequently in the likes of Maximum Choppage, which even then was on ABC2, not ABC1.

Instead, to provide any significant Asian-Australian TV presence, it’s been up to the diversity-tastic Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which has a remit to “provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society”. Now, normally, these have been somewhat worthy affairs, usually documentaries, but The Family Law is a scripted comedy adapted from gay, Asian-Australian writer Benjamin Law’s memoir. And it is actually genuinely funny.

The Family Law is set in the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, and features Trystan Go as ‘Benjamin Law’, a 14-year-old version of Law, albeit one who’s a teenager in 2016. It tells the tale of one long summer, during which his dysfunctional and huge Chinese-Australian family have to deal with all manner of issues, both at home and at school.

In common with the US’s Fresh Off The Boat, Go has his own ‘tiger mum’ (Fiona Choi) who also has to deal with the social pressure of other tiger mums, as well as her sexually active teenage children. But unlike many an American sitcom, Go is a camp nerd and the show sides with him, rather than mocking him, in his big struggle – winning the school talent competition against his ‘hateful’ Japanese-Australian neighbour, in which he wants to play a woodwind trio with a deaf and an aviophobic clarinet player. Why is his neighbour hateful? Because his family were named ‘young Australians of the year’ and set up a school for AIDS orphans.

That tells you a lot about this version Law. And how willing the show’s creator is to pastiche himself.

The show is often bittersweet, with the first episode ending on a sad note, and some of the humour comes from Choi’s social exclusion, the Law family not being as rich as some of the other Chinese-Australian families. But it is often very funny, has copious Cantonese and Japanese language scenes, and has a warm heart: the only racism is from Choi, whom Go says in voiceover is odd, not because she’s Chinese but because she’s just odd; equally, Go’s flamboyance isn’t mocked or even mentioned by anyone, and is simply accepted.

There’s a tendency with ‘diverse shows’ that they get made because they’re diverse rather than because they’re good. Fortunately, The Family Law is both.