In Australia: Available on ABC Me
In the UK: Netflix. No premiere date yet
Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature – indeed, it’s one of the four great classic Chinese novels. The story of Buddhist monk Tripitaka’s quest for some sacred scrolls, aided by his magical disciples Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy, naturally enough it’s been adapted numerous times for TV. However, while the book is obviously well known in the East, in the West, people often watch these shows without realising that what they’re watching is an adaptation of anything at all, let alone Journey to the West.
If you’re American, the most recent adaptation of Journey to the West was Into the Badlands. You might not have realised this, but to be fair, that’s because it had almost nothing to do with the original story. Nevertheless, it was theoretically an adaptation.
However, if you’re British, Australian or a New Zealander and of a certain age, you’re almost 100% likely to know of at least one, far more faithful adaptation of Journey to the West: Monkey!
A huge hit, it was made by Nippon TV/NHK in Japan then dubbed into English by the BBC, but probably only 1% of the audience at most knew it was both a surprisingly faithful yet also free adaptation of Journey to the West.
Watching The New Legends of Monkey, I think we’ll have pretty much the same situation for a whole new generation of viewers. Aimed squarely at the same ‘children and young adults’ market as Monkey, it also acknowledges all the changes in storytelling that TV has undergone in the past 30+ years, moving us further away from the original Journey to the West to give us something that as its name suggests is a bit more Monkey meets Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Ditching any Daoist or Buddhist influences completely, The New Legends of Monkey relocates the action from China, India and the Silk Road to a fantasy realm inhabited by humans, gods and demons. Most of the gods have been gone for 500 years, leaving demons to run the realm unhindered. A resistance movement exists, but they’re pinning their hopes on tracing the location of the ‘Monkey King’ (Chai Hansen), a god imprisoned in rock for centuries but whom they can revive if they place his crown on his head.
Trouble is, the demons want to stop them, so it’s left to serving girl Luciane Buchanan to first find and free Monkey, then locate the Sacred Scrolls that he hid before his imprisonment. Adopting the identity of monk Tripitaka, she soon recruits two other gods, Pigsy (Josh Thomson) and Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel), to help her and Monkey find the Sacred Scrolls, all while the demons try to stop them, prompting numerous martial arts fights. Of course, it would all go a lot quicker if Monkey could summon that cloud of his…
Back when I reviewed Fox (US)’s LA to Vegas, I suggested that 2018 would be the year of the ‘workplace two-hander’. What’s a workplace two-hander? It’s a comedy in which pairs of actors sit around in workplaces chatting for extended periods of time about nothing in particular.
My theory was prompted by the arrival of not one but two workplace two-handers: LA to Vegas and CBS All Access’ No Activity, which in turn was based on Stan (Australia)’s workplace two-hander of the same name. In that review, I also suggested that Patrick Brammall was trying to dominate the world.
But it turns out that I was only partially correct. Yes, 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the workplace two-hander. Yes, Patrick Brammall is trying to dominate the world.
However, he’s not trying to do it alone. With him in his extinct undersea volcano base is Trent O’Donnell, the co-creator of No Activity and now the creator of another “workplace two-hander” – ABC (Australia)’s Squinters. If they get their way, soon all comedies will be workplace two-handers. Can we stop them?
‘Squinters’ refers to Sydney’s legions of car-based commuters, who squint as they head into the sun from the city’s western suburbs for work in the morning and when they head back home in the evening. Here, though, we focus on a select group of squinters, who by and large work for fictional company Kosciuszko (say it out loud and you’ll realise it’s a Spoonerism of ‘Aussie Costco’).
Topping the bill is comedian Tim Minchin, who’s created a fictional car pool scheme purely so that he can woo co-worker Andrea Demetriades (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Pulse). Then there’s fellow comedian Sam Simmons, who’s being made redundant and is having to endure the commute with his dog and alternately his mum (Secret City‘s Jacki Weaver) and brother (Weaver’s Secret City co-star Damon Herriman).
Meanwhile, Susie Youssef takes flatmate Rose Matafeo to a job interview at Kosciuszko, only for her to be made her supervisor, potentially jeopardising both their friendship and their future yoga-winebar. Co-workers Steen Raskopoulos and Justin Rosniak have confessions to make to each other, mostly about wanking and testicle injuries. Lastly, Mandy McElhinney (Hyde & Seek) is taking her daughter (Jenna Owen) on the school run, sometimes with Owen’s neanderthal boyfriend; she’s also trying to kindle sparks in a new relationship with Wayne Blair (Cleverman), mostly by phone at first but he ends up joining her.
For the most part, each of these two-handers is separate, although there is a partial crossover at the end of episode one between Simmons and Raskopoulos/Rosniak’s ‘bottles’. There are plots, too, with relationships developing, Kosciuszko potentially being taken over by Amazon, and Matafeo coming to terms with her new position in life.
Workplace two-handers, by their very nature, require not just great comedy actors but top dialogue writers, since there’s not much else to rely on for humour. Naturally, Squinters therefore has a whole fleet of writers behind the scenes, including some of the cast.
However, this leads to a great deal of variability between each of the two-handers. Probably the best is Minchin and Demetriades’. They have quite a nice, flirty relationship, albeit one that’s a bit stalkery at times. McElhinney and Owen’s relationship comes a close second, though, with a fair degree of love-hate going on between mother and daughter. Simmons/Weaver is funny if you like jokes about dogs farting, but Simmons/Herriman works a lot better.
All this is relative, mind. Largely, Squinters is about as funny as an early morning car commute – long stretches of tedium, occasionally broken up by a mildly funny moment. It’s not as bad as or even 1% as offensive as Carpoolers, but despite the cast doing their level and sometime winning best, most of the jokes are signposted a mile off, some even getting a 3-2-1 countdown to let you know when the punchline’s going to arrive.
I tried really hard with this but managed only to get as far as the third episode. My wife caught some of it but her reaction was more or less the same as mine: “Shame, because Tim Minchin’s really good.”
Try it if you want, but only if you’ve nothing else to do. Still, it does make you realise that if Patrick Brammall does end up dominating the world, he’ll have earned it.