It’s got rich source material, plenty of funny actors and a great plot hook. So why does new TVNZ OnDemand show Talkback find it so hard to make a connection?
One of the biggest misconceptions about media is that Mike Hosking hosts a talkback show. He doesn’t – it’s a breakfast show on a talk radio station. The difference is important, because it reflects a big difference between how a host is meant to relate to their audience.
Hosking isn’t constantly asking his audience for feedback. He’s giving them interviews and other produced content while they’re on the commute into work. An actual talkback radio show during breakfast hours would undoubtedly fail. Who’d have the time to call in when you need to get the kids to school?
It’s a small point, perhaps only relevant to media obsessives like myself. But it feels indicative of a wider issue for Talkback, a new TVNZ comedy about a once-premier radio station that is losing audience share. There’s a pervasive sense that the show doesn’t quite know what it is.
The main character Malcolm White, played by former Hauraki and Late Night Big Breakfast host Jason Hoyte, is clearly meant to evoke notes of Hosking. He opens with a rant about getting stuck in traffic while driving a Maserati to a hair salon, for example, and his brand is being number 1 – a winner.
And to Hoyte’s credit, he doesn’t do the character as an impersonation. There’s much more subtlety to it, with plenty to develop as the season progresses. If you had to imagine a starting point, Hoyte plays White more like if former Radio Sport shock jock Mark Watson discovered mindfulness and chilled out a bit. There’s plenty to admire too in his portrayal of the brittle ego of broadcasters.
The opening episodes also set up an excellent arc for the show to follow. White’s show loses prime position to a bleeding heart breakfast show on another channel, and is told to get the ratings back up or else.
But at least in the first two episodes, Talkback hasn’t really done anything else with most of the other characters, and doesn’t seem to be threatening to do so either. Small-screen favourites Mike Minogue and Ginette McDonald make valiant efforts bringing spark to the dialogue they’ve been given. And writing rounded, interesting characters is obviously really hard, particularly if they’re also meant to be comedic.
It hasn’t worked here. The lineup beyond Hoyte feels like a series of one-note depictions of the types of people you might see working behind the scenes at a radio station, rather than actual characters with reasons to be there. With episodes being quite short and sharp, a lot of time is spent on scenes that are inexplicable and pointless, with characters who have little to offer beyond being their own vaguely unpleasant archetype.
A lot of the jokes feel similarly undeveloped. One that I couldn’t shake came in a scene featuring the station’s sadistic, plutocratic boss Sir John and the weaselly middle manager Menzies. They’re talking about White doing a publicity stunt, and I’ll quote the laugh line from the boss – “the last thing we need is him looking like an idiot. Like you do, in those pants.”
If it feels unfair to criticise a punchline out of context, let me assure you – it comes out of nowhere in the show too. We never see the pants, or get any further information as to why it’s meant to be funny. The scene simply ends. It feels like placeholder script text [Boss: says something cruel to put-upon underling] that nobody remembered to replace before filming day. Many of the jokes end up landing like this, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s a shame, because the rest of that scene does in fact include some quite funny punchlines, delivered after well-crafted setups. There’s a really good comedy show in there, but about a third of each episode would have to be cut to get there.
There is a bit at the end of the second episode (we were sent the first two as review screeners) that gives me hope. Without giving too much away, Hoyte goes on air with Hilary Barry playing herself, and it’s electric, riveting viewing. Initial press for Talkback suggests there will also be cameos from Stan Walker and Jason Gunn, so if that energy can be harnessed there’ll be plenty of reasons to keep watching.
But on the strength of the opening episodes, too much of Talkback feels like it’s being phoned in, without the compelling authenticity that can make the format really fly when done right. Like a nervous host when the calls aren’t coming, it jumps around without enough consistency, and quickly runs out of things to say.
Talkback arrives on TVNZ OnDemand today.