How To Talk Australians and the rise of web series

Whenever a cultural trend takes off in Australia, usually half a decade after its global origination, we reliably lose our shit. I sort of love (and hate) how naff and predictable our enthusiastic response is when something that’s already succeeded internationally finally reaches our shores. But then again, nothing is original – itself an unoriginal sentiment we’re heard a million times before. This old platitude certainly hold true for How To Talk Australians, a twelve-part web series that has local viewers in a tizz.

By satirising Australian cultural assimilation practices through the eyes of international citizens (Indian students and instructors at the fictional Delhi College of Linguistics) How To Talk Australiansoffers a timely take on undercutting racial stereotypes. While some of the references feel dated or cliché, the show successfully provokes laughs during this particularly disconcerting period of inflammatory racial politics and oblique rhetoric in Australia.

‘A recent survey reveals that 30 per cent of Australians are casual racists. Which means 70 per cent are full time,’ states an instructor at the fictional school – an on-point gag that packs a punch, as do most of the episodes.

How To Talk Australians has deservedly garnered widespread praise both locally and internationally. With close to two million views worldwide, it could be deemed our first truly successful locally-produced web series. In episodes of just five minutes or so, the show ranges from overt ‘taking the piss’ moments, to intelligent subtleties that elevate it above hollow mockery.

At a recent screening and Q&A event for the web series at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, the series’ creators – Tony Rogers, Rob Hibbert and Jason Byrne – noted that How to Talk Australians was initially developed as a television pilot to be pitched to local networks. But instead, it was funded by Screen Australia’s Multiplatform Drama Production program, which aims to support online and digital storytelling, and thus it became a web series.

Conceptually, it’s hard to imagine this mockumentary-style series would be as effective in standardised half-hour narrative blocks. The short, self-contained episodes and loose format prevent the conceit from becoming staid or repetitive (beyond the recurrent stylistic framing). During their Q&A, the creators themselves admitted that the online configuration worked well and offered them some creative freedom. Implicit in their responses, however, was a belief in the relatively low position of the web series format within some unspoken screen arts and televisual hierarchy. Screen Australia itself conceded that recipients of Multiplatform Drama Production funding were succeeding on an ‘unconventional slate’.

The reality is that high-quality web series are more prevalent than these underlying attitudes suggest. In many cases, the format’s unconventionality provides creators with an alternative to mainstream networks, offering more creative space while keeping them less beholden to the stipulations of broadcasters or funding bodies.

The web series is an inherently fruitful form, reflecting the diverse voices of its writers and creators around the world. The freedom from inhibitive network mandates, and a lack of stylistic and length constraints have meant otherwise taboo subjects can be foregrounded in these shows, without the issuing of moralistic responses that would otherwise follow. For instance, acclaimed web seriesBroad City and High Maintenance have both been able to include unique takes on (and celebrations of) stoner culture as thematic focal points, something a mainstream network may not be able to readily defend to advertisers and stakeholders.

Each masterful, five- to fifteen-minute episode of High Maintenance focuses on the peripheral characters its central pot dealer delivers to – so much so that the peripheral characters are in fact the central characters, while the pot dealer drops in and out (sounding like a stoner much?). The LA Review of Books notes, ‘High Maintenance brings the small stuff to the fore, issuing an implicit directive to pay attention to what we normally glance over’. The same could be argued of the web series as a form. Its structure lends itself to comedy rather than drama, and tends to attract time-starved, attention-deprived, gif-obsessed audiences. But it’s also an experimental space filled with sharp observational humour and insightful explorations of the inconsequential moments of everyday life.

Jenny Slate’s web series Catherine, is the most absurd take on this humour of the mundane so far. In episodes that run for only two and a half minutes, Slate has stretched the inane, uncool and yet oddly entertaining everyday absurdity of inconsequential office life into an awkwardly funny series. Taking Seinfeldian nothingness to new heights, it won’t be for everyone.

Meanwhile, after getting its start in 2010 as a web series, Broad City has become one of Comedy Central’s most celebrated new series, and made stars of creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. As the likes of Slate, Glazer and Jacobson demonstrate, web series are particularly fecund ground for comedic female talent. From the duo-focused trash humour of Idiotsitter, to the amusing smarts of New Zealand’s 3 Girls, 1 Flat, or 2010’s Vag Mag, or Awkward Black Girl here is gratifying, visible proof that women are far more present and creatively engaged in screen culture than we’re often led to believe

Arguably, web series offer marginalised voices space to create content and reach audiences, and thus reflect reality more readily than traditional television. This ‘unconventional’ platform offers a means through which varied views can be considered, as non-heteronormative explorations become less ‘alternative’ within the world built by the web series. The likes of The Outs or The Slope have a queer focus and subject matter, whereas Whatever This Is (a heartbreakingly wonderful comedy-drama from the creators of The Outs) and Be Here Nowish (once again, a female-driven series) subtly and realistically rebuke standardised heteronormative representations of the status quo, without overtly politicising this process. Amen to that.

Web series are an empowering artistic form capable of evading and pushing against conventional boundaries. Hopefully, How To Talk Australians will be only the first in a succession of high-quality local web series open to thematic and formal experimentation. It’s a pretty great web series, but with all the possibilities the format offers, it can only get better from here.

Originally published as Kill Your Darlings TV Column.