Buck House was an edgy sitcom from the 70s that manages to still be edgy and different now, though not for the right reasons. Sam Brooks muses upon the distinct pleasures of Buck House.
When I think of the 70s, I think of Yakety Sax, Mary Tyler Moore and a show where a guy had to pretend to be gay so he could live with two women.
I don’t think of a show where a dude tries to start a brothel in his flat.
Buck House, a New Zealand sitcom from the mid-70s that preceded the more famous floptacular homegrown sitcom Melody Rules, is a bizarre proposal. One, it has popular newscaster, personality and Shortland Street stunt cast member Paul Holmes in the lead role. Two, the actual content of the show aligns more with a wannabe edgy cable drama than a sitcom that premiered over forty years ago.
Here’s a few things that make it more like an acclaimed HBO show that all your friends watch but you just can’t bring yourself to because there’s so much TV to watch nowadays:
Paul Holmes’ hair
C’mon. You wouldn’t put that hair on network TV nowadays. That’s premium level hair. That’s pay-per-view hair. We should be putting this article behind a paywall, that’s how much this hair should cost.
One of the flatmates is trying to start a brothel
The central joke of Buck House, or at least the very first episode, and presumably the rest of the series, is that Reggie is the normal flatmate and Joe is the aggrieved flatmate. Reggie is normal in that he just wants to cook dinner for his girlfriend, answer the phone (seriously, about five minutes of this twenty minute episode revolves around Paul Holmes talking very unconvincingly on the telephone) and wearing a floral apron.
On the other hand, Joe wants to start a brothel. This is played for laughs. Full-on ‘oh look how naughty he’s being laughs!’. So much so that I assumed that it would all be a misunderstanding, he wasn’t actually trying to start a brothel but people had just gotten their wires crossed.
Don’t get me wrong, people get their wires crossed in hilarious sitcom fashion all the way throughout the episode, but starting a brothel is not the source of one of them.
Joe genuinely wants to start a brothel, with the very imaginative name ‘Escorts Unlimited Limited’ (which is a pretty funny joke, admittedly). The episode revolves around him interviewing women to work at the brothel. He thinks it’s a great business idea, and who am I to judge? What do I know about economic realities in the 70s?
You can guarantee if this show was made now it would be a half-hour show starring the Duplass Brothers and it would be very relatable for a certain part of the population, deemed problematic in our time by another part of the population and remain extremely unknown to a much, much larger part of the population.
Another character is assaulted by a police officer
This happens off screen and is brushed off, but one of the characters, Jo, has been squatting at a house and was forcibly evicted by a police officer. This is not quite played for laughs, which is weird because most things in a sitcom are played for laughs. Especially in the 70s, which was before the era of half-hour comedies where nobody laughs and people are just a bit sad for half an hour.
This wig is definitely auditioning for RuPaul’s Drag Race. The woman wearing this wig, Sheila Harrison, puts on a Cockney accent for absolutely no reason other than that it is a little bit funny. At one point, she breaks into famous Sweet Charity song ‘Big Spender’, and if this was made nowadays this would win her an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series because it would be oh so very sad.
The cop is clearly corrupt
One, he shows up at the house of a woman who he just ‘laid hands on’ (which they say a lot during this episode, and means a lot of different things, but in this context, I’m going to assume it means that he definitely assaulted her) at her invitation, which is weird!
Two, and this is less a sign of corruption and more of tremendous stupidity, but he briefly believes that these men are setting up a house for budgies, because this is from an era when men could refer to women as ‘birds’ and not be shunned by all reasonable society.
Three, he goes home with one of the women who are interviewing to be escorts at this new escort business, in a carefully implicit exchange for his silence. You can tell this was written in the 70s by a dude because the woman is like ‘yeah sure this is fine!’ rather than finding it gross and completely inappropriate for a police officer to do.
Who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her background? The episode introduces her as another escort who interviews for a place at Escorts Unlimited Limited, but everything about her vibe is straight out of Twin Peaks. She is bringing Grace Zabriskie in Inland Empire realness, and I am here for it.
There’s really not that many jokes
Honestly, the only thing that really separates this from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which you can stream quite handily on Lightbox) has about as many mean-spirited jokes as you can fit into a half-hour, whereas this show spends a languid five minutes on telephone jokes.
You can absolutely feel the show reaching to be edgy and break boundaries, and while it’s hard to know exactly what boundaries it was breaking back in the 70s, you can feel the self-satisfaction oozing off the screen.
It’s the same kind of feel you get from some of today’s least successful cable shows, the kind that are one unsubtle gesture away from having a character look at the camera and say “Can you believe that we’re doing this?” Nowadays, it’s every death, every drug-take, every sex scene. In the 70s, it was Tony Barry smoking a cigar inside and being proud that he’d come up with the totally original and never-done-before idea of starting a brothel.
But the biggest thing I’ve learned from watching old New Zealand shows on NZ on Screen is how much style is tied into time – and sometimes that relationship can be unexplainable. Buck House, like Melody Rules twenty years later, still owes so much of the craft behind its production to stagebound theatrics. We weren’t making TV; we were making theatre on a small screen. Paul Holmes is playing to the back row here, and while he already has the charisma that made him the face of 7pm for an entire generation, when you give him lines and make him act jokes, it becomes flop-sweaty.
In the show’s defence, this was 1974! People were still afraid of the possibility of nuclear war! They weren’t distracted by their mobile phones! They could happily sit down and watch Buck House and wait for something that could easily be resolved in five minutes of open conversation be dragged out for twenty minutes excluding credits. The pace is excruciating in an age of bingewatching, of consuming everything as immediately as we possibly can, dissecting it quickly and moving onto the next thing.
Do I want to go back to the pace of Buck House? God no. You’d miss five news cycles by the time you got to the first ad break. But it’s enough to give me pause, and when you’re watching a forty-four year old sitcom, sometimes that’s all you need.
You can watch Buck House and a load of other New Zealand content on NZ on Screen.
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