In celebration of Rent Week, Calum Henderson watches the hilariously bleak docu-series Renters and finds Kiwi comedy gold.
On the face of it, the TVNZ 2’s Renters show seems to exist solely to reinforce every negative stereotype about tenants in the Evil Landlord Handbook.
It cynically takes all the worst and most extreme examples of bad tenants and uses them to play into the popular notion that renters are a pack of lazy idiots living in their own filth, refusing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and never paying rent because they spend all their money on big TVs and bags of drugs. Pity the hard-working, long-suffering property managers hired by landlords to deal with it all.
In that respect, yip, it’s quite bad.
But Renters is also extremely funny, and it’s not the grubby tenants and their sinks full of dirty dishes we’re laughing at – it’s the property managers. Ordinary people with a little bit of power, they have been seduced by the idea they are the heroes of the show. Much like David Brent, who thought he was the hero of a documentary about a paper company in The Office, their lack of self-awareness makes for moments of excruciating comedy.
Each of Renters’ six seasons to date has plenty of these moments. As far as classic episodes go, it’s hard to look past season 5 episode 1, if only because it focuses on the hands-down funniest property manager on the show’s books: Pru from Good Girls Property Management in Christchurch.
An enigmatic cross between Astar the magickal arts and crafts lady from Good Morning and Oblina from Aaahh!!!! Real Monsters, Pru is what a young person might call a ‘problematic fave’. She says and does a lot of quite dubious things but somehow manages to remain a likeable figure.
In S05E01, Pru and her colleague Michelle go to confront a serial rent-avoider about her unpaid rent. She ends up getting into a storming row with a bloke who effs and jeffs and tells her “it’s got nothing to do with me, lady!” Pru sucks her teeth and sighs “well, you know, the poor taxpayer…”
“I pay three times as much tax as you!” the bloke shouts. He is absolutely going off on one, Pru and Michelle are better off leaving it to the tenancy tribunal hearing, but the camera’s rolling and Pru can’t help herself. “Really,” she replies. “Do you work at night?”
She’s gone rogue, she can’t be tamed, she’s terrible and contemptuous but shit, it’s classic Kiwi telly. “It’s just flagrant abuse, I’m sick of it” she harrumphs after the bloke has a go at the poor old cameraman and chases them off the property.
All the property managers on Renters are egged on by the camera to a greater or lesser extent. The most David Brent-like is Richard from Manage My Property in Wellington, a gags man through and through.
“Come and look at this,” he invites us to chuckle at the wall art a tenant has left at one of his properties. “Laugh every day, love beyond words… leave without paying! Bastards … I hope that shit’s going to pick off.”
Everything is fair game when Richard’s owners’ rent hasn’t been paid. This particular tenant has left a shelf full of whiskey bottles in the kitchen. “That’s not whiskey,” Richard scoffs. “It’s Johnny Walker, which is shite.”
Of course, not all tenants have shite taste in whiskey, and not all property managers are this smug and self-satisfied. If Richard is David Brent then self-deprecating Gareth from Cutler’s in Dunedin is Tim – his convivial relationship with a flatful of Hyde Street scarfie lads is a funny faint beacon of hope.
For the most part, though, Renters does not cover its cast of property managers in glory. That’s not to say it’s disaffectionate, but it can only work with what it’s got: people going to work and doing their jobs, people in positions of power with glaring blind spots when it comes to how they might come across. A real-life Kiwi The Office, bleak and hopeless, it is New Zealand’s funniest show.
This post is part of Rent Week, a series about why the experience of renting a home in NZ is so terrible, and whether anything can be done to fix it. Read the entire series here.
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