There have been two recent moments when I’ve gasped at something on TV — or three if you count accidentally seeing eight minutes of Mel and Kochie, and realising that millions pour this formaldehyde into their ears every morning.

The first was last night during the Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion part two, which I for one was enjoying as a trip down memory lane, more poignant than comic, Ozzie’s head slowly drooping to the desk, respectable middle-aged matron Jackie MacDonald understandably reluctant to provoke comparisons with her carefree youthful ditz persona. Like the final scenes of the Last Picture Show, it had the feel of windswept death about it.

Then of course, the Red Faces Black Faces act came on, and the memory of HHIS disappeared for ever, for everyone. Were they really doing this? Had something gone wrong with the set? Apparently not. Oh it’s the Jackson Five. White guys in blackface. A black guy in whiteface will come on as Michael. Edgy reversal. A whiteface guy came on. He wasn’t black.

As with the Chaser kiddie death sketch, you can see how the reasoning went as the show was being thrown together “… cos it’s a joke about Jacko being black and turning white it’s not a real minstrel show — and besides one of these guys is Indian and another’s a Lebo we can say Lebo can’t we, and they’re … beige?”

The absence of anyone with sufficient basic nous to state the obvious — blackface is an absolutely special case — is in part due to the collapse of the network culture, from which Hey Hey came, whereby someone in the chain of command could simply say “no”, without having to think twice about it.

It’s a loss of the ability to create the illusion of joyous anarchy, rather than simply surrender to angry chaos — a predicament that has also befallen The Footy Show, which is now like a Strindberg play entitled “Inside Sam Newman’s Head”.

But there is a wider loss of ability to make basic judgements, which is a product of the new imperative to test boundaries. The other gobsmacking moment was at the end of episode one of Hungry Beast, the interritasting (a word I have made up to combine interesting and irritating, and which I anticipate will save millions of keystrokes for reviewers of fringe festivals) DIY show from the Denton compound.

As a teaser for the next episode, they had a parody of the Four Corners “football rape” investigations with an anonymous male witness talking about Liz Ellis “coming in and getting into it … then the whole team came in” and it turns out he was just watching netball on TV.

Get it? Well you wouldn’t if you switched Channels halfway through, as any defamation lawyer would assert. A generic joke about netballers fine. Mention real people and a bit more elementary circumspection is required.

How is it that good producers are losing the ability to make these calls? Because of the overwhelming degree to which good TV has become transgressive TV, designed to shock, challenge deep-seated values, not so much entertain as confront audience with its bourgeois sentiments etc etc. In the old days, the bad old days but nevertheless, the feeling of shock, confrontation would set off alarm bells in a producer. Now it sets off contradictory impulses — “we can’t do this, so we must!”

If Hey Hey wasn’t finished, it is now. If the ABC don’t get their act together, what will finish them is John Safran’s upcoming series on race and identity, inter alia, which will be hilarious, confronting, and interritasting in excelsis.

The Hun has already run a report about some malarkey in which Safran allegedly has a Jewish man junk off to a picture of Barack Obama in a Palestinian sp-rm bank (allegedly … I strongly suspect that this is an elaborate and total hoax to snare The Hun, with the whole pseudo-scandal then forming episode six of the series).

Even if this is a hoax, the Safran series will have uncovered meat, stronger than the current ABC is willing to defend. They are marching into battle headed by an evangelical Christian, Mark Scott, whose commitment to separating faith from the public sphere they are testing to destruction. Since the whole point of evangelical Christianity is to regard God as calling on you to bear witness, that is going to be dicey in the extreme. Every time Safran frots a nun or whatever, Scott is going to hear the cockerel crowing, and wonder if he, like Peter, will deny his Lord for man’s law.

That is not a reason to either produce or defend Safran, who makes good TV — but it’s not easy either, because there’s so little content to Safran. Unlike Chris Morris of Brasseye fame, Safran has very little by way of politics that wouldn’t look out of place in a Young Anarchist nuclear disarmament ‘zine, c.1986. There’s a permanent adolescence to his political take. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if that’s not the case with this series — with the accent on surprised.

The added complication of transgressive TV is that it’s increasingly visceral — blood, injury, consensual torture, body fluids, anger, outrage, hurt, imminent chaos, are its palate, a world away from the broadcast music hall of Hey Hey’s heyday. Such TV not only confronts our values, it confronts basic boundaries of bodily wholeness, of purity and pollution, of the profane and sacred. Safran’s TV is smarter than most because he’s simply reversing the Jewish theology of his youth — his work is an anti-Mishnah, a catalogue of transgressions.

When you take that approach, you will eventually exhaust everyone’s patience, and calls for the enforcement of limits will come not from an urge to censorship, but from a wider sense that a national broadcaster is undermining deep-seated parts of the culture, of any culture. At that point for both political, and genuine, reasons, the PM and others will go the way they did in the Henson case, and cleave to a wider basic reaction — that X is “revolting”.

If the ABC don’t understand that they are now defending something more than a right to be “controversial”, that they are de facto arguing that their artists should have the right to offend at a fairly deep level (which I believe they do), then it will be a massacre. Stringent controls will be placed on content, which will take us a long way backwards.

Unless of course Safran’s thing turns out to be a gentle sitcom about a bachelor son and his ageing mother … for a fourth shocking moment …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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