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TelevisionApril 5, 2017

On Monday Jesse Mulligan showed the Project NZ its future

Screen Shot 2017-04-05 at 5.58.18 AM

The Project showed its teeth this week, via Jesse Mulligan’s plea for someone, anyone to fix the Department of Conservation.

It launched with a bang and a Bax and a song and a dance in February, but in recent weeks it’s been a little too easy to forget The Project NZ was on. Not because it’s not good – it almost always is, when you watch it. The problem is more one that all new shows face after the frenzy of launch has subsided nowadays – how to command and sustain attention in an era when a thousand different media outlets and platforms are screaming 24 and 7.

On Monday night, we saw something which suggests the show might have found a way out. Jesse “the collective work husband of all stay-at-home Mums” Mulligan faced the camera, and delivered a two-and-a-half minute editorial about the Department of Conservation.

DoC started in 1987 as a big, inspiring idea,” he said brightly, before the kicker, “but I want to talk about the fact that DoC in 2017 is horribly underfunded.

“We should be proud of what DOC does, but we should be embarrassed about how it’s been treated.”

And just like that, a new vision for The Project NZ was born. Until this point, in the balance of news versus jokes, jokes had the upper hand. This had sometimes lent it a 7 Days Daily feel. It was entertaining, but not urgent. This has manifested itself in a ratings gap with Seven Sharp which won’t easily close.

This isn’t a surprise: around its launch, Seven Sharp was neck-and-neck with Campbell Live – and Mulligan was its host. It takes a while for any new venture to figure out what it is and how to express that. But because of the prominence and history of the 7pm slot, there’s a pressure on The Project NZ to deliver faster than most. Monday, then, felt like a breakthrough.

What we heard from Jesse was everything good about the show: the pop culture references and smart cutaway visual gags that you wouldn’t get anywhere else on “the news”, with something else, too. That came in the form of a researched, well-argued sincerity which still retained the looser and more relatable vernacular of the show.

“Eighty percent of birds are on the verge of disappearing forever, but the birds are the least of our worries because at least they’re cute. Most of the insects, lizards and plants are all screwed as well, and they’ve got it worse because no bank is going to put its hand up to sponsor a freaking knobbled weevil.”

Great points, delivered with humour and a hint of fury. It’s what Jesse’s equivalent, Waleed Aly does often on The Project in Australia, and is a critical part of balancing the “news” with the “delivered differently” that is the show’s mission statement as well as its slogan.

Mulligan ended it with a throw to the future that was both non-partisan and sounded like a warning: “This year I’ll be asking all parties what they’ll do to give DoC the support they deserve – and I hope you’ll pay attention to their answers.” The news, delivered with teeth.

All the current hosts have the capacity to do this. Done right it transcends the windy radio editorials we get from the ZB crowd every morning and becomes something bigger, funnier and far more incisive – a moment which has the capacity to stop social media and get it to turn its head. This is what happened: the clip is closing in on 200,000 views on Facebook, and has been shared over 3,000 times. 

Do it occasionally and you’ll get a good audience online. Do it every week and they might turn on their TVs more often too.

Watch / read Jesse Mulligan on the legitimately scandalising state of DoC here

Disclosure: this post’s author, Duncan Greive, auditioned for Jesse Mulligan’s job and did not get it.

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