800 Words, James Griffin and a fanboy
If James Griffin decided to make a show about the worst public toilets in New Zealand chances are I'd love it. The man is a dead set genius in my opinion - and also one of the nicest people I've met.
Hence the new show he co-created with Maxine Fleming - 800 Words - was always something I was going to be extremely forgiving over. But more about that in a minute...
I had the great fortune to work on a podcast called The Lesser Gods with former Stuff TV blogger Chris Philpott. We were both massive fans of The Almighty Johnsons and took the tentative step into online broadcasting because of it.
I can't speak for Chris but I had hoped we might get 50 or so people listening to the episodes - but it took off. The podcast was posted just after the show aired and we analysed each week's action. We even got a chance to interview some of the stars - who were just amazing when faced with stereotypical fanboys throwing questions at them.
It turned out we were getting over 1000 people listening to episodes, from all over the world. Including James Griffin. I was astonished and the first time I met him I as in awe. I was standing in front of the man who co-created what many consider the best New Zealand show of all time, Outrageous Fortune and it doesn't get much better than that for a television geek.
Well, until he thanked me for what I had done and said that he and his family would sit after the episode aired and listen to the podcast, wondering if we had picked up on some of the clues that had been placed throughout.
It was the weirdest thing I had experienced in my life - all I did was speak about his creation, his and the cast's genius. I didn't need thanks - I should have been thanking him. Thinking about it even now brings a smile to my face.
And then he invited me over to his place to record an interview for the final podcast and part of me died and went to heaven. The interview, of course, was amazing (no thanks to me!) and James was a fantastic host. We chatted for an hour after the podcast recording finished and I was walking on water.
I haven't spoken to him since that interview - but I continue to watch everything he does with a sense of wonder, hoping a part of it may rub off on me. It's no coincidence that the best episode of season one of Step Dave was the one that James wrote. And so when I heard 800 Words was debuting in Australia first before airing on TVNZ later I knew I couldn't wait. Thanks technology!
800 Words is the story of Australian widower George Turner (Erik Thomson - Packed to the Rafters). After his wife's death he's searching for some meaning to his life - so decides to uproot his entire life, children included, and move to smalltown New Zealand. Unsurprisingly his kids aren't best amused and that sets up the premise for the first episode.
However it's been met with mixed reviews in Australia - criticised for being too like other shows, particularly SeaChange. That seems slightly harsh based on a first episode that has to set up the characters and put them in a position for the journey they are going to take during the season. There are plenty of opportunities for a common premise to go off in completely different tangents - and that's what I expect of 800 Words as the season progresses.
That's not to say it was perfect. Parts of it were overdone, in my opinion. I felt the run of back luck they faced was contrived to the point of head-slapping - the final straw being an incident with the Titania, the boat carrying their belongings to New Zealand.
But that's ignoring a big part of what makes shows like this so good - the characters. The Kiwis that become the Turners' new neighbours are an eclectic bunch - but instantly likeable. Anna Jullienne, Shortland Street's Maia Jeffries, as artist Katie is fantastic - but, as always, it's Johnsons alumni Michelle Langstone as medic Fiona who lights up the screen.
In a television environment that has faced constant change over the last few years, we should welcome shows that provide a point of difference to the crap reality television that dominates our schedules. 800 Words may not have had the most balanced of starts - but I'm confident that those glimpses of greatness that showed through will become more prevalent as the season progresses.
I can even forgive hearing New Zealand described as the 'arse end of the world' multiple times (incidentally, if New Zealand is the arse end, what does that make Australia?). I think Kiwis will take to this show, perhaps more so than our Australian cousins - and I heartily recommend tuning in when it airs. And using technology to view if you can't wait.
800 Words will air on TVNZ later this year. I fully expect 'New Zealand's Worst Public Conveniences' to start airing in 2016. James, if you're reading, give me call.
I'm heading back to Scotland for a few weeks so this will be my last Couch Potato posting until mid-October. Be nice to each other, and I'll take back some haggis and Irn Bru for you all.