A gender-flipped Handmaid’s Tale set during a pandemic… and it’s a black comedy? Somehow, the New Zealand show Creamerie nails it, writes Linda Burgess.
An extremely pregnant Tandi Wright, hands over tummy à la Meghan Markle, is speaking in mellifluous tones to a large group of women in one of those ubiquitous small-town halls. They’re waiting to hear whose number has come up and those of us who’ve read Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short story ‘The Lottery’ are already feeling uneasy. When paired with the soundtrack – Reb Fountain’s sexy rendition of ‘It’s a Wonderful World’, which expands to include a choir of angelic young girls, wholesome in a Princess Charlotte-meets-Gloriavale sort of a way – this comedy-drama is already sending out clear messages. And then, cut to a rugby club changing room where, inexplicably, every fit young sportsman is vomiting copious amounts of splatter-movie blood and being carted off on stretchers. Well done writers: so much established with such economy. Welcome to Aotearoa, some time soon.
That’s quite a lot to take in. Helpfully a timer on the top right-hand side of the screen is telling us – as we watch huge pyres of (male) bodies – that we’re now on Day 2920. That is, eight years have passed since every male on the planet was killed by a mystery virus. Fortunately, sperm banks have made the continuation of life possible. For the meantime, at least. Of course we can see nods to The Handmaid’s Tale – unavoidable in any dystopian drama featuring women – but unlike Handmaid’s Tale, Creamerie is actually darkly funny.
A lot is established in those first 20 or so minutes. Significantly, we learn that we’re watching something well-written and impressively well-acted. We’re in the most capable hands of Roseanne Liang, and she has her terrific co-writing team from Flat 3 and Friday Night Bites along with her again. We meet organic dairy farmers Alex (Ally Xue), Jamie (JJ Fong) and Pip (Perlina Lau), with their unisex names, waiting to see if they’ve won tonight’s little vial of sperm. When Jamie’s number comes up it leads to a small but perfect satirical scene as the doctor (Rachel House) peers between Jamie’s legs and pronounces that Jamie’s vulva is…impressive. I’m taken back to the 70s when women were encouraged to examine their bodies. I’m remembering the friend who told me that she lay on her kitchen table, among friends, and was told that she had a perfect cervix. This is a warning: if anyone ever tells you something like that, do not tell a person like me. People like me never forget.
The casting of Tandi Wright as the guru-like leader of a repopulation organisation is genius. The wellness movement – and I apologise right now for antagonising a fair number of you – gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. That’s because movements of any kind leave me feeling glad I’m an outsider, and particularly the ones that tell me I have to look after myself better. Tandi Wright captures perfectly how flesh-creeping overtly kind, caring people can be.
Just as with any drama, comedy needs you to have empathy for the characters and their situation. Obviously not everyone finds a world without men such a bad thing. But we are subtly reminded that the death of all males means not just men but also boys have died. Male embryo self-abort immediately. It’s not dwelt on, but wisely it’s not ignored: this is a traumatised society. And at the end of episode one, things are about to change.
I’m a longtime admirer of Roseanne Liang who both co-wrote and directed this series. She first came to our attention in 2011 with her terrific film My Wedding and Other Secrets. That year it was the highest grossing local feature film in New Zealand, and so it should’ve been. More significantly it was the first feature film made by a Chinese New Zealander. Look at what Liang and the rest of this group of talented Chinese New Zealand women are doing now.
Writers who write about something and then it happens can carry some strange burden of guilt: They imagined it, and therefore somehow caused it to happen. Fortunately the virus that hit the world after they’d written this, though devastating, is not quite as horrendous as that imagined by Liang and company. But the wellness movement… is it too big an ask to beg them to imagine something a bit more palatable next time?
Creamerie screens on TVNZ2 tonight at 9.30pm, and the entire series can be streamed on TVNZ on Demand now.