TV review: Diplomatic Immunity

BY JANE CLIFTON
Last updated 09:48 11/03/2009
DIPLOMACY RULES: Fe'ausi's High Commissioner Jonah (David Fane) with his daughter Leilani (Lesley-Ann Brandt).

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A suspicious person - and there are a few of those in Wellington since the change of government - could wonder if TV One's new comedy Diplomatic Immunity is covert propaganda.

OPINION: At a time when the Government is controversially overhauling our foreign aid bureaucracy, here is a comedy series based on one - blessedly fictional - Pacific nation's wiliness in extorting, rorting and squandering New Zealand taxpayers' money.

Perhaps this is an inappropriate response, but this is inherently funny. The people of The Most Royal Royal Kingdom of Fe'ausi are so likeably dodgy and ingenious, the implication is that our Foreign Affairs wallahs have been so flat-footed they deserve to be made monkeys.

The plot is in the fine old Yes, Minister tradition, taking place in the alternative universe created by bureaucrats. Bright, young foreign-affairs star Leighton (Craig Parker) has put himself in the dogbox by being caught shagging a young British royal in a limousine outside Government House.

One assumes State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie conducted the inquiry into this malfeasance, because Leighton has managed to keep his job, but his penalty has been to be banished to the biggest hospital pass the foreign service can conceive: attache to the Fe'ausian High Commission, which is the Mickey Mouse haven of a staff of Fe'ausians whose sole purpose is to rip off aid money.

In order to redeem his brilliant career, Leighton has to clean up Fe'ausi's act. But he is up against the High Commissioner, Jonah, played with a stupendous blend of hauteur, venality, cheek and gloriously flashy suits by Dave Fane - who it's good to see getting a starring role.

Naturally, Leighton is stitched up immediately, given an office in a cupboard, and has his head filled with conflicting nonsense by the variously batty commission staff.

There is the dippy young receptionist who, although as silly as 10 chooks, is about the most reliable source of information; the nymphomaniac tourism officer; the creepy, extremely thick cultural officer; and most bizarrely, John Leigh playing the supposedly albino Fe'ausian economic adviser, whose main job seems to be to do the cleaning.

In and out of the commission storms Leilani (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Jonah's beautiful young daughter, who has been banished from the kingdom for her militant leadership of the Fe'ausian democratic movement.

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It appears she is this movement's sole adherent, but nonetheless effective for it. Her self-appointed job is to sabotage her father's interests, while rampaging about in fetching bathing gear waving pro-democracy placards.

The series will follow the Yes, Minister see-saw pattern of the forces of reason - Leighton, being overwhelmed by the forces of barmy bureaucracy, Jonah - but sometimes prevailing, at least for a few beats between the ad breaks.

Naturally, Leighton falls hopelessly in love with Leilani.

So is it any good? Yes, in a curious way. So far, there are not many laugh-out-loud moments. It's the premise that's funny, rather than the dialogue.

This is a bit of a disconnect, because it's a bold, hammy, superbright sort of comedy, from which you expect major pratfalls and belly laughs.

But the laughs it generates are more for its subtleties - the ironies in the plot, the quite believable farce of the diplomacy involved.

It's possible that the capering is too big for the content. The supporting cast is a little lurid, using up too much oxygen.

Then again, if this had been styled in the understated mockumentary way of The Office, say, it wouldn't have been as accessible to a general audience.

Uber-liberals beware: no-one with tender ethnic sensibilities should watch it, because it's possible to become gravely offended at the portrayal of Fe'ausians.

But as a sit-com, Diplomatic Immunity is highly watchable. What's not to like about wiley diplomats who bamboozle foreign affairs officials with bogus cultural traditions, made up as they go along, and changed abruptly - "We've discovered new ancient lore"?

It's also an ongoing gag that Leighton, who isn't stupid, has to intuit when it would be wise to play stupid - one of the arts of diplomacy.

Sadly, the odds of this show being a hit, which it deserves to be, have been diminished by its late 10pm timeslot.

* What do you think of Diplomatic Immunity? Post your comments below.

- The Dominion Post

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