Rebuilding Paradise with Paul Henry marks the controversial presenter’s return to primetime to talk about New Zealand after Covid-19. Sam Brooks reviews.
It has to be addressed: A significant amount of people don’t want to see Paul Henry back on our screens. He’s done a lot of bigoted shit, including but not limited to mocking women, gays, and people of many minorities. He’s apologised for some of them, and not others. There’s a lot of people who would rather watch the back of their eyelids than another show fronted by him.
Despite that, Henry’s a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s willing to call people on their shit crisply and pointedly, in a way that his AM Show understudies have never been able to. He’s not afraid to court controversy, and it’s burned him as much as it’s gilded him. You can definitely question whether a once-in-a-generation talent should stay firmly in that generation, or whether new voices should be cultivated, but in a media landscape where pay cuts are the norm, you can understand Mediaworks’ choice to yank him back into primetime and pray for ratings. It’s certainly more dignified than being plonked on Shortland Street, Paul Holmes-style.
There’s another expectation here, though. Rebuilding Paradise with Paul Henry is not just the return of a polarising figure to primetime, it’s the first major new show to be produced by one of our networks during the lockdown. It’s decidedly post-Covid-19, in a way that has the potential to be exciting and current. Let 6pm and 7pm provide the news, Henry can provide the commentary.
God knows why, then, Rebuilding Paradise decided to lead off with Sir Michael Hill. Hill is, undoubtedly, a titan in his field. He has educated observations to share about where the industry has been and where it’s going, but right from the get-go, he’s talking about problems that people would kill to have. Fine for him, but not necessarily the way you want to pilot your new show talking about rebuilding paradise, ostensibly for the many and not the few. Educated observations are no excuse for Henry letting Hill ramble about a house fire that occurred when Mediaworks’ target audience was just a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.
Hill talks nearly uninterrupted (has Henry ever let an interviewee go on like this?) for four minutes, and it takes an awkward nudge toward the retail industry’s future for him to get to any relevant point. The main advice Hill has is about long-term goal setting, which I can get for free from any wellness expert with 650 followers on Instagram. I don’t need it from our major media network, thanks. (To say nothing of Hill saying, as gleefully as a man his age can, that there is no class system in New Zealand.)
The rest of Rebuilding Paradise is pretty informative! Hospitality New Zealand’s CEO Julie White on the future of that industry and Professor Paul Spoonley on the likelihood of future compliance with lockdown were interesting. The aim of this show seems to be less about looking ahead to a future, and more about directing its audience past the constant barrage of news. You can find what’s happening now at 6pm and 7pm, but if you want to know what it means, come to 9.30pm. The format of the show works, and has potential to get these discussions into the homes of wider New Zealand, which is not to be sniffed at. Pity about the opening act, though.
It’s only in the last segment where Henry starts to come alive. He gleefully rips into the Zoom backgrounds of noted New Zealanders like Sir Graham Henry, and the Port of Tauranga CEO Mark Cairn. Here, the show seems fun rather than just informative. It’s a reminder that, for all the shit that he deservedly got, people watched Paul Henry to get Paul Henry™, and maybe absorb some news in the process. It’s a rare person who can accomplish that, but I’m not sure that’s what this show needs, which is solid production and talent to riff off. Closing the show with a cheerful reporting of Yemen’s Covid-19 record (one case, no deaths) without consideration of the wider context around Yemen (in short: not good) is a prime example of this.
Based on the first episode, any name could have been put behind Rebuilding Paradise. But the gamble that Mediaworks took by attaching Paul Henry’s name – eyes attracted versus eyes rolled – wasn’t delivered by the actual show. We already have multiple examples of this kind of gently informative show. Fronted by approachable, informed, kind household names. If MediaWorks is going to take the gamble, it needs to go all in. To channel Henry into something more substantial than what we saw in the first episode of Rebuilding Paradise.