Alex Casey watches the joyous return of TVNZ1’s The Casketeers, a docuseries set in an Auckland funeral home.
New year, new us, new season of The Casketeers, new leaf blower for Francis Tipene. The fabled leaf blower defined the first season, an enduring symbol of the funeral home owner’s obsession with neatness and order. For season two, his coveted leaf blower been upgraded to the glitzy Turbo-Vac, an monstrous wheeled beast that preys on helpless leaves and litter everywhere. “He no longer blows,” says his wife Kaiora, while Francis appears to vacuum the entire street. “He sucks.”
Let it be known across the land: the Turbo-Vac is literally the only thing in The Casketeers that sucks.
If you inexplicably missed the greatest local comedy of 2018, The Casketeers is a docu-series following the employees of Tipene Funerals, an independent funeral home in Auckland. Run by the neurotic Francis Tipene and his angelically calm wife Kaiora Tipene, their small cohort of employees provide a sitcom cast so perfect that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all scripted. There’s sidekick Scottie, who loves throwing shade at his boss; Fiona, who doesn’t take anyone’s shit and Taka, the gym-obsessed brother with zero body fat and zero work ethic.
It’s extremely difficult to mention The Office when you are talking about a fly-on-the-wall workplace comedy, although I’d suggest Francis is much more of a genial Michael Scott-type boss than the woeful David Brent. During the annual staff photos, he skulks past, half-joking-but-not-joking-at-all that Fiona didn’t bother wearing any lipstick. When he visits the Henderson branch for a surprise inspection, he was frustrated to find nothing out of place – not even a speck of dust. “I just want to growl,” he mutters, quietly incensed. You couldn’t write it.
There’s also the hilarious discussions around health and weight loss that weave their way through the lunchroom – well-timed with their audience raring going to back to work, sparkly-eyed and full of new year’s resolutions. Francis has had gastric sleeve surgery since we last saw him, and his colleague Scottie has shed the pounds as well. As co-workers do, there’s the inevitable, charmingly mundane chat about what everyone is eating for lunch. “This salad needs a prayer and… it needs mayonnaise,” Francis remarks of his new healthy diet plan. Relatable.
Beyond being a work of organic comedy genius, The Casketeers is also extremely educational without ever feeling like a 101 lecture in death and dying across different cultures. “Winter is a busy time for funeral homes,” Francis explains at the beginning of the episode, casually inferring a crushing truth that more elderly people die in the colder temperatures. Later, they navigate the delicate procedure of internment – relocating the remains of a WW1 veteran. It’s a fascinating, enthralling process, frank without ever teetering into macabre or exploitative.
It’s those breathtakingly intimate moments that elevate the show well beyond a simple workplace documentary, which is undoubtedly part of the reason why the first season is quietly taking Netflix by storm. The generosity of the families in letting us into their most painful moments just goes to show how much trust and respect Tipene funerals has built with its community. When a large grieving family is short on space, Francis wheels out the mattresses for them to sleep with their beloved inside the funeral home. They’re here to help, any which way they can.
Without ever feeling rushed, the 22 minute episode traverses the full scope of human emotions from joy, to grief, to boredom. The soundtrack allows the tone to gently drift, slowing down for contemplative moments and ramping up to comedic, cartoonish bops where needed. Other times, the music is stripped away all together, leaving just the rhythms of pattering rain on umbrellas in a cemetery. The editing feels as empathetic as the employees, lingering on dry jokes and politely cutting away in moments of pain.
Mixing comedy with tragedy, the mundane with the extraordinary, the salad with the mayonnaise, you simply must watch this show for a completely unique vision of death (and life). The characters ooze with kindness, sensitivity, and good humour, providing conversational te reo Māori and cultural lenses that are sadly still rare in primetime. I’ll take it to my grave – The Casketeers truly feels like nothing else on television – not here, not anywhere.