TV REVIEW: 800 WORDS
POSTED 9:31pm | 17 SEPTEMBER 2015
A co-production between Australia's Seven Network and New Zealand's South Pacific Pictures, the new hourlong NZ-set drama 800 Words concerns itself with the story of George, a recent widower who makes the self-described "rash decision" to move his family from inner-Sydney to the small country town of Weld, New Zealand - the so-called "arse-end of the world". From the moment they land in their new country they are beset by a series of unfortunate events that, in their own way, introduce the family to the quirky characters of Weld and lead to an eventual grudging acceptance of their new situation.
It's a light drama that riffs heavily on ideas established in shows such as Packed to the Rafters, SeaChange, and Always Greener. Much of the attempts at humour are derived from the fish-out-of-water getting caught up in crazy situations. Most of it falls on the flat side because the differences between Australia and New Zealand aren't that wide, and George's life in Australia isn't particularly well established in this pilot episode.
George Turner (Erik Thomson from All Saints, Packed to the Rafters) is a newspaper columnist who's life is put on hold when his wife passes away. After months of mourning, and with the threat of his family falling further apart, he purchases what he believes to be the house he used to holiday in as a child in a small town in New Zealand over the internet. He swiftly packs up his life in Sydney and forces his two teenage children, rebellious daughter Shay and precocious son Arlo (played by newcomers Melina Vidler and Benson Jack Anthony), to follow him across the Tasman Sea and attempt a fresh start at life. A series of set-backs and misunderstandings that begin almost from the moment they arrive in Weld threaten to make things between the hurting family even worse, until the locals band together to help set things right for the Turners and ease their transition into their new surroundings.
The series was created and written by James Griffin (writer on Outrageous Fortune) and Maxine Fleming, though there's no clear creative voice or vision apparent in the premiere episode. It's a very safe script devoid of any real defining character or style, and the plot and setting is fairly cliché. It's very standard Australian network drama TV, which is disappointing considering it's predominantly a New Zealand led production and New Zealand tends to produce slightly more risky television (like Outrageous Fortune). It's not unpleasant, but it's the kind of inoffensive television that frequently fails to reach any great heights or connect with audiences.
The first episode is directed by Australian TV veteran Pino Amenta (All the Rivers Run, Packed to the Rafters, Winners & Losers) and he is a steady hand for this type of fare. He uses the natural settings to good effect and allows space for his actors to explore. His camera rarely intrudes on the action and he makes sure the story moves along at an even pace, but he's fighting against a weak script and largely undeveloped characters played by actors who aren't quite confident on the tone of the show.
The real stand-out of the show is the performances of the lead teenagers by Vidler and Anthony. In this episode they show themselves to be very intelligent and reactive young performers who elevate the script and, with it, the show itself. The viewer can believe they're actual siblings with the depth they create in their relationship through the looks they give each other and the little physical interactions between them. There's one scene in particular that begins with Shay in the makeshift kitchen in their "new" home where she calls out to her brother: "Made you a sandwich, dickhead". The way Vidler delivers the line and Anthony reacts is ripped straight out of the memories of all Australian siblings and gives me hope that there may be something worth sticking around for.
But overall it's just a brief moment, among a limited set of other brief moments, that exist couched inside a pretty lacklustre whole. 800 Words has the feel of a very breezy, enjoyable, light drama, but like the lead characters' supposed occupation and the series title suggests, it's not much more than cheap sentiment with all the challenging parts cut out to fit it into a restrictive word limit. I'm hoping that future episodes take a few more risks, especially considering that only eight episodes are being produced, because the bones are there for pleasant distraction, but I won't be holding my breath.
Watch list: Just one more episode, if I remember.