For Throwback Thursday this week, Claire Adamson arms herself with a bottle of wine and revisits the worst comedy series that New Zealand has ever made.
In the early ’90s, a young and misguided television station called TV3 made a show so terrible that its name has become a byword for bad TV in this country.
Melody Rules debuted in primetime in 1993. The success of shows like Full House had spurred TV3 to attempt to make a sitcom of its own, and the pilot was delivered to the New Zealand people with a lot of fanfare. After being almost universally panned, Melody Rules – of which a full 44 episodes were commissioned and made – was shunted to the middle of the night.
I mentioned the show to my boss, who moved to New Zealand from Ireland in the early 90’s, just as Melody Rules was commencing its reign of terror. He told me that upon turning on his television for the first time, he baulked. “Is this New Zealand television?” he thought to himself. “Dear god, what have I gotten myself into?”
Instead of using traditional Kiwi humour, the show was a direct translation of an American sitcom to New Zealand screens, resulting in a show that is Kiwi only by way of its accent. In fact, Melody Rules came across so poorly that even now, a full two decades after it was canned, it is still one of the most oft-cited (but horribly misguided) reasons that New Zealand comedy supposedly sucks. Could it be that Melody Rules is indirectly part of the reason Flight of the Conchords was driven to HBO? According to the NZ Herald, TVNZ had a real “reluctance to commission independent comedy.”
Being a complete and utter masochist (remember, I once watched a full hour of This is Serial Stuff), I decided to watch a few episodes of the show. To fortify myself for the task ahead, I strong-armed actual-good New Zealand comedian Hamish Parkinson into watching with me, and strengthened my resolve even further with my flatmate Kate, who isn’t a comedian but is still very funny. All this was accompanied by a reasonably large quantity of wine.
In the pilot episode, we learn the situation (the ‘sit’, if you will – the ‘com’ never arrives). Melody is looking after her younger siblings while their mother (known simply as Mum) is doing an archeological dig in Malaysia. A perfectly logical premise for a plot. Melody can’t wait for Mum to get home, because then she is off on holiday – she is going on a two-week cruise around the Bay of Islands (further proof that Melody Rules had completely lost touch with reality).
Alas: Mum decides to stay in Malaysia, leaving Melody in charge of her teenaged siblings and thus setting up the premise for a lot of really low-stakes hijinks. Hamish, in what is probably the most generous criticism Melody Rules has ever received, compares it to a Samuel Beckett play. Mum, it seems, is Melody’s Godot.
The lineup of characters couldn’t be any more obvious (to channel Chandler Bing, whose own sitcom was arguably one of the genre’s finest). Melody is the level-headed protagonist, constantly exasperated with her siblings, neighbours, co-workers and friends. Inexplicably, Nightline presenter Belinda Todd was cast as Melody, and did just as good a job as you would expect a newsreader to do. Kate swears she is wearing a wig.
Her younger sister Zoey, played by Jodie Rimmer, is the alternative goth one, full of sassy zingers and barely-concealed disdain for her family. She has three Amnesty International posters on her bedroom wall, and could be easily interchanged with Winona Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice. Melody’s feckless younger brother Geoff and his best friend Crayfish may as well be Bill and Ted. I don’t recognize the actor who plays Geoff, but Crayfish will go on to become noted graffiti artist Askew.
Of course there’s a sassy best friend, Fiona, played by Susan Brady. In one episode, Melody bets Fiona she can’t go without beauty products, which becomes a catalyst for a whole bunch of accidental sexual innuendo. In one scene, the kids catch her creeping furtively through the house with a whole cucumber, ostensibly to cut into slices to put on her eyes. In another, Melody tells her “you just can’t bear to not have something spread on your face” at which point the three of us erupted into laughter. I’m not quite sure this is the comedy the writers had in mind, but you take what you can get.
The final recurring character is Neville, the rough next-door neighbour. He is a salty, heavy-drinking type, who is predisposed to barging into the house of his young, mostly female neighbours and shouting, “ya decent?” He shows the boys how to undo a bra with knickers covering his face, and how to highland dance while wearing a kilt the traditional way – much to everyone’s horror. The words “Neville’s swirling penis” appear in my notes. The true nihilism of Neville’s life really sinks in as we hear him being coaxed down off of his roof where he is clinging desperately to his keg of homebrew, after a gang of youths try to steal it.
Overall, the show is like the unholy love child of Eight Simple Rules and Mrs Brown’s Boys. The plotline hovers between non-existent (Melody is not allowed to hassle her siblings because of a bet) and just way too much (one of the teens snatches an old lady’s bag). Hamish proposes that not a single comedian had a hand in the show’s making, which could explain some things, but it also seems that there was not much budget. The show leaves the tiny living room/kitchen set just once in the three episodes we watch.
Melody Rules’ notoriety is such that it is a favourite nostalgic comedy pick on NZ On Screen. It seems that we love to dive back in time to see just how bad this thing was (very), and just how many laughs we can get out of it (quite a few, if enough wine is taken). I’m not sure New Zealand learned much initially from Melody Rules – sitcoms to follow like Welcome to Paradise tried and failed miserably to wipe clean the show’s slate.
But New Zealanders ARE funny, and I know we’ve got a good sitcom in us, goddammit.
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