Friday, 25 June 2010


Friday, 25 June 2010

Already a long-running hit in its native New Zealand, to British eyes Outrageous Fortune plays like Shameless-meets-Arrested Development, with elements of '80s sitcom Bread stirred into the mix. The series charts the misadventures of the West's, a close-knit family of troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells (dealing in "TV friendly" crimes like burglary, not murder and drugs), in a style that can't quite shake the aroma of an Antipodean soap opera. Kiwi accents and paradisiacal weather aren't ideal for gritty crime drama, so it's little wonder that Outrageous Fortune ploughs a more lighthearted furrow with its anti-social Brady Bunch...

The 2005 pilot "Slings And Arrows" (like the show's title, episodes are named after Shakespearian quotes), does a proficient and entertaining job of introducing its rabble of characters, on the fateful day patriarch Wolfgang "Wolf" West (Grant Bowler) is jailed for four years. There's his wife Cheryl (Robyn Malcolm), the archetypal "mother hen" who keeps their brood in order; beautiful daughter Pascalle (Siobhan Marshall), an airhead who aspires to be a glamour model; her intellectual sister Loretta (Antonia Prebble), who has blackmailed a teacher into letting her skip school; son Jethro (Antony Starr), an anomalously law-abiding lawyer; his identical twin brother Van (Starr again), a dopey opportunist; and Alzheimer's-afflicted Ted (Frank Whitten), a tracksuit-wearing grandad who burned down his own house to move in with his family.

As the show borrows so many elements from TV families, Outrageous Fortune is incredibly easy to slip into. On some level we've already seen these characters before (the acid-tongued mother, the brainy daughter, the teenage bimbo, the golden boy, the idiot brother, the space-cadet grandad), and at the expense of originality comes recognition and familiarity. Which is just what you need in a comedy-drama relying entirely on a positive audience reaction to the focal family. And they're a lovable bunch of delinquents, even if I'd have preferred a tangier level of criminality in their behaviour and social attitudes. I'm not expecting The Sopranos, but evidence of the West's being a genuinely troublesome clan isn't really in evidence. The worse it gets is seeing Van steal a family heirloom from someone's home, but the moment's played entirely for laughs and ends with Van being dealt a black-eye by an elderly Chinese lady who knows martial arts.

It lacks teeth but succeeds as fun, breezy entertainment. I especially liked the performance of Malcolm as the indomitable matriarch, Prebble as the underachieving schoolgirl with filmmaking aspirations, and Starr playing antithetical twins (a binary role I admit passed me by while watching, to the actor's credit). Less interesting was Holly Valance-alike Marshall as the clichéd ditzy blonde who wants to improve her modeling portfolio, but I'll excuse a pilot leaning on stereotypes in a few areas that's introducing a large ensemble. Fact is, "Slings And Arrows" burned through its first episode and setup the premise and relationships with economy and snap, managing to tell a slim but diverting story about a stolen ornament and parental absence. The intriguing thing is how the concept feels easily replicable (perhaps even better-suited to a country with a grittier underbelly?) so little wonder there have been three attempts to remake the show overseas...

The first international version was the UK's Honest from '08, starring Amanda Redman and Sean Pertwee, which was cancelled after one series due to low ratings. The second remake, developed by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) was Good Behavior in '09, which never made it beyond a pilot that starred Catherine O'Hara, Gary Cole, Jeffrey Tambor and Mae Whitman. And the third is Scoundrels, which has at least managed to get picked-up by ABC, as the West's literally go west...

Scoundrels' pilot, "And Jill Came Tumbling After", is almost a scene-by-scene retread of Outrageous Fortune's premiere, imbued with a smidgen more style behind the camera (the opening scene's police raid being far more cinematic), but there's also an irritating amount of incidental music and a general lack of focus. It lacks the heart and quirky reality of the NZ original, somehow unable to strike a balance between comedy and drama. The few dramatic moments slip by listlessly, while most of the funny moments just aren't sold very well.

Familiarly, Wolfgang "Wolf" West (David James Elliott) is unexpectedly jailed for five years, leaving wife Cheryl (Virginia Madsen) alone to bring up their tearaway family: sexy daughter Heather (Leven Rambin), her brainy sister Hope (Vanessa Marano), lawyer son Logan (Patrick John Flueger), his identical twin Cal (Flueger with a goatee), and senile Grandpa (John Lawlor).

You can't help but directly compare the two shows, and Scoundrels plainly comes off worse, despite having more familiar and experienced actors to call on. Madsen is the main attraction, but she unfortunately proves unconvincing as the matriarch and lacks the necessary comedic touch. I also found Flueger a big disappointment, given how his two characters are such an enticing prospect for any actor to sink their teeth into. Logan hardly even registers, while Cal plays like a bad sitcom character from early-'90s Roseanne. Elliot is a hunkier version of Wolf, who does satisfactory but unremarkable work, while Lawlor's grandpa was barely utilized.

The only true successes were the West sisters. Marano found a good vibe as the filmmaker-wannabe not above blackmailing her teacher, even if none of her scenes were designed as smartly as Fortune's. But it's Rambin's character who felt like an improvement over the original (based solely on the content of the two pilots), as she brought a fresher, less victimized feel to the role. Her version of the aspiring model isn't such a bimbo, and certainly no naïve pushover. It helps that Heather was given most of the pilot's fresh content, as her sleazy photographer tried to drug and rape her, but Heather cannily switched his spiked champagne and got revenge by tying him naked to his bed when he gained consciousness. Okay, so there's no iota of originality in the scenario, but at least Heather was being used well and came across as a fun character with some vim. Traits in short supply everywhere else.

Overall, it fascinates me when two different cultures tackle the same script and premise, producing such qualitatively different episodes. Most of Scoundrels' changes to Outrageous Fortunes' pilot are minor, but the cast are so noticeably weaker that they drag the light-touch material down like anchors. I had a tough time believing either version's family were locally famous criminals, but the West's in an American context look particularly small fry. It's Only Fools & Horses-style hijinks transplanted to sun-kissed Palm Springs, California, and that feels very tepid.

Of the two pilots, I prefer the livelier original, primarily because the actors fit their roles a lot better, the tone throughout was more assured, and the story flowed smoother. Of course, it's possible Scoundrels will find its feet when original scripts take advantage of the actors, in much the same way NBC's The Office only really took flight when it stopped adapting the original BBC scripts and found its own niche. The best moments of Scoundrels were diversions from Outrageous Fortune's storyline, promisingly. I just can't see Scoundrels lasting long enough to grow into itself this summer, having failed to hit the ground running.

  • Why didn't ABC go with the 2009 pilot from Rob Thomas? Good Behavior's cast (Catherine O'Hara, Gary Cole, Jeffrey Tambor) are far more appealing than Scoundrels' actors, and would themselves have kept me on the hook for while.
  • Wolf was originally played by Neal McDonough (Minority Report, Desperate Housewives), but he was replaced after three days for refusing to do sex scenes because of religious beliefs. Said scenes were part of the script when he agreed to join the show.
  • You may recognize Leven Rambin from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where she played Riley; and Carlos Bernard (24's Tony Almeida) appears as the West's "nemesis" Sgt Mack.

"Outrageous Fortune": 'Slings And Arrows'

WRITER: James Griffin
DIRECTOR: Vanessa Alexander
CAST: Robyn Malcolm, Antony Starr, Siobhan Marshall, Antonia Prebble, Frank Whitten, Kirk Torrance & Grant Bowler
TRANSMISSION: 12 July 2005 - TV3

"Scoundrels": 'And Jill Came Tumbling After'

WRITERS: Lyn Greene & Richard Levine
DIRECTOR: Julie Anne Robinson
CAST: Virginia Madsen, David James Elliott, Patrick Flueger, Leven Rambin, Vanessa Marano, John Lawlor & Carlos Bernard
TRANSMISSION: 20 June 2010 - ABC, 9|8c