Seven years ago today, Outrageous Fortune ended forever. To mark the occasion, Madeleine Holden rewatched the entire series to see if the years have been kind.
As a bona fide West Aucklander myself, I have fond memories of watching Outrageous Fortune the first time around. The show followed the lives of a West Auckland family with a long criminal history trying to live on the right side of the law and became a beloved hit in Aotearoa, airing for six seasons and producing a whopping 107 episodes in total.
I recall Outrageous Fortune portraying working-class West Aucklanders in a comedic but sympathetic light; never sneering down its nose and ridiculing its subjects like Little Britain did so egregiously in the UK at about the same time. (For any outside readers, Outrageous Fortune centres around a family of “Westies”, or white, working-class West Aucklanders, roughly the equivalent of bogans in Australia, chavs in the UK, and rednecks in the US.)
Giving the show another crack reminded me that its overwhelming strength is its characters. Cheryl West remains a force to be reckoned with: she’s brash, funny and nurses a heart of gold under her rough exterior, and her two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to keeping her family clean drives the plot along. She’s a fierce protector of her family and the vulnerable – a memorable moment is when she snaps, “Leave her alone, Noel, she’s not a melon!” at a sleazy supermarket manager who sexually harasses female staff.
The diversity of characters on the show is laudable, and the depth of the female characters holds up well in 2017. Antonia Prebble’s character, Loretta, is another jewel in the show’s cast; a proto-April Ludgate teen constantly rolling her eyes and dripping with sarcasm. She has a hilariously antagonistic relationship with her sister Pascal (“What’s up, Slutty?”), who also remains a genuinely comedic character and eerily reminiscent of girls I knew in high school. The perennially deadpanning hornbag Ted, played by the late Frank Whitten, is another reliable source of laughs.
Speaking of horniness, the show is still noteworthy for its no-nonsense approach to sex. The very first episode opens with a steamy handjob scene involving Cheryl and her soon-to-be-incarcerated partner, Wolf, shortly before their house is raided by cops. By the time the final episode aired, we’d seen Jethro’s te reo lesson turn into a cunnilingus session; wayward family friend Eric rooting a blow-up doll; an on-duty cop jacking off to pictures of Pascalle; pyromaniac Sparky wanking to a video shop blaze; the youngest West family member, Loretta, losing her virginity to a Corrections Officer; and pretty much every possible permutation of characters hooking up with each other.
The show is similarly straightforward when it comes to the topic of drugs and alcohol. The stimulant-addled Sparky is seen sniffing bumps of speed in broad daylight while Van and his stoner mate Munter are near-constantly blazed. There are spiked drinks and slipped ecstasy pills before we’re so much as through season one, and the Double Brown flows abundantly in every episode. West Auckland’s real-life problem with meth (or “P”) is reflected when Luther is revealed to be the region’s biggest cook of the stuff, and family lawyer Corky gets hooked on it. The show’s gritty portrayal of West Auckland’s underbelly has stood the test of time.
However, Outrageous Fortune has aged much more poorly when it comes to its treatment of race and gender issues. It doesn’t take long to encounter the first blunder: in the first episode, scallywags Van and Munter encounter an elderly Asian woman when they rob the Hong family’s home. Her race is immediately played for laughs, as she strikes a martial arts pose while “mystical” Asian music plays in the background. Cringeworthy jokes about the family name follow – “the Hong house, more like the Wong house” (as in wrong, ha… ha?) – and straight-up racial slurs are right around the corner, when Van is told he must do work on the Hong family’s house to make amends (“Pretty suckarse future being Chinky’s bumboy”, he says).
It’s not a one-off, either. Jethro pretends to be Māori to get a job at his law firm, revealing it to the partners in his interview and telling them he didn’t put it on his CV because he’s not in favour of “preferential treatment”. Yes, that’s right, the famed preferential treatment of Māori in law firms. Things go from bad to worse when Loretta puts on a faux Māori accent while addressing a partner in Jethro’s firm: “When are you gonna stop exploiting my bro, eh? Let him work for the good of the tangata whenua!” The treatment of sexuality and gender is about as thoughtful – tired stereotypes about gay women are trotted out in the episode where Cheryl is worried Loretta might be gay, for example (she’s not into shopping – you know what that means!). Of course, Outrageous Fortune doesn’t pretend to be portraying flawlessly woke characters, but a lot of this stuff still feels really unnecessary and doesn’t reflect well on the show’s writers.
The other anachronism is how much of a behemoth the show is; a relic from the days of tuning in to TV3 to watch one 45-minute episode a week. It’s a mammoth binge watch, with a whopping 22 episodes in the show’s longest season and most others clocking in at 18 or 19. A decade ago, endless side plots could be entertained and a tight storyline didn’t matter so much, because you were being drip-fed a single episode a week. These days, the freewheeling storylines feel a bit exhausting and you’re left wishing for shorter, snappier seasons.
Despite these criticisms, though, the show still largely holds up. The characters are loveable and entertaining, the humour and warmth is quintessentially Kiwi, and it’s a funny, feel-good show. It’s encouraging that Antonia Prebble’s acting chops are being utilised in Westside, the spinoff prequel, and that the lives of humble Westies are still considered good fodder for New Zealand TV in 2017. If you were a big fan of Outrageous Fortune the first time around, it’s worth another trip down memory lane.
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