Colin From Accounts
There are two moments – two precise camera movements – in Colin From Accounts that made me recall a very particular slice of American screen comedy: Alan Pakula’s Starting Over (1979) written by James L. Brooks, and the projects that Brooks went on to direct himself, from Terms of Endearment (1983) to How Do You Know (2010). This is a good sign at the outset.
The first involves a little dog – the doleful Colin of the title. Colin is at the centre of the plot mechanism that kicks off this series: one day, out driving, Gordon (Patrick Brammall) gazes upon a young woman, Ashley (Harriet Dyer), who, for the sheer hell of it, answers his voyeuristic look by flashing a naked boob at him. Suitably distracted and deranged by this sight, Gordon lurches his car forward and, in the process, seriously injures Colin the dog. (A nice detail caps off this initiating accident: a random old lady who berates these younger things for – as she immediately presumes – burying their heads in their mobile phones at all times.)
Cue a complicated chain of questions and obligations – save the dog? Let it be put down? Take it in and look after it? – that serve to draw Colin (40 years old) and Ashley (29 going on 30) inexorably together. Since Ashley effectively gets booted out of the share-house where she’s been living – and given that her mother, Lynelle (Helen Thomson) is a classic ‘excessive’ parent, endlessly embarrassing (to Ashley) and with very few behavioural borders – it looks like she’s going to have to move in with single-guy Gordon. And Colin. Things go from there, in various directions.
Age difference. Family problem. The ambiguous position of Gordon’s ex, Yvette (Annie Maynard) – who happens to be the rather tense vet who ministers to Colin immediately after the accident. Plus a best friend figure for Ashley, Megan (Emma Harvie), who’s far more intriguing than such figures usually manage to be in, say, Rebel Wilson rom-coms – since her all-round sexual vibe, when stoned and drunk, manages to enflame both of Gordon’s work colleagues: his best male mate, gregarious Kiwi Brett (Michael Logo), and the no-nonsense, pragmatic, married-with-kids Chiara (Genevieve Hegney). All good situations, promising and well-plotted – sometimes pushed just a little too hard with that mode of mannered comedy acting (eager to signal and trigger a laugh) of which Australian film and (especially) TV produces oh so much.
But where are the special, redeeming camera movements I promised? Big, commendable fact about Colin From Accounts: not very many inserted cut-ins or cut-aways of the dog in question, even at those sentimental or ironic counter-points where almost any sit-com in the world would find it obligatory to slam them right in. In fact, the first special moment I’m extolling – when, by this point, Colin has a wheely-contraption to enable him to walk, and a white medical funnel holding his neck in place – is a kind of pointing camera move, a swift pan to Colin and back to Gordon in a relatively wide shot, that exactly reads the spectator’s mind at the precise moment we are thinking: well, what about the dog? It’s a camera strategy out of the Pakula playbook (see The Sterile Cuckoo), and it works to clinch an instant diagram of complicity between us, the characters, the dog (of course), and the actors/writers/directors of the series. (The two stars are the writers, and episode direction is divvied up between Trent O’Donnell and Matthew Moore.) This I have not seen in many (any) previous Aussie sit-coms, or during the sanctimony of The Dish (2000).
And there’s more, it’s not a one-off fluke! Gordon – in pursuit of a dick-pic he accidentally sent Ashley and now hopes to erase from her phone before she sees it – finds himself bursting in on a somber scene: a hospital death-bed vigil. But all he’s fixed on is that phone in Ashley’s pocket. So, at just the right, precision-timed second, there’s a gradual, contemplative pan off Gordon to frame, just in the corner of the shot, the head of the dying person. Another X-ray of the viewer’s mind right there and then.
Much of the mise en scène is more ordinary than those two examples, but such moments were enough to keep me happily involved with Colin From Accounts throughout. On a more pervasive level of narrative pleasure, this is a series that pushes into some moderately outrageous stuff – beginning with a sleepwalking Ashley pissing all over Gordon’s bedside drawers, as he incredulously watches on. There’s also material about cancer (in the backstory), sexual performance anxieties, everyday queerness, fumbling a formal vaginal inspection, an “over-trusted fart” from drunken Megan, and the difficult toiletry functions of poor Colin. That laconic streak in the Australian sense of humour has rarely been put to such effective use!
And, even better, Colin From Accounts meets up with the keenest element of the James Brooks legacy (more a feature of his film than his TV work): an emphasis on difficult interactions, awkwardness, humiliation, cross-wire communications, split-second freeze-outs and switches of emotion. This structuring strand reaches its apotheosis with the introduction of Lynelle’s parter, Lee (Darren Gilshenan) – a dubious academic and ex-progressive who, amidst a family festivity, gives sleazy a new meaning.
29 and 40? (The actors themselves, by the way, are currently 34 and 47.) Hmmm, that doesn’t seem such a big age or culture gap to me. But the series harps on it all the way down the line, resulting in scenes where Ashley’s mates (whom she reassuringly refers to as “animals”), as well as her ex-boyfriend from the hospital where she’s training, blithely mistake Gordon not only for her father, but also address/insult him as ‘Gramps’! A strangely exaggerated, prurient element – this ambient nervousness about so-called age-inappropriate relationships – that doesn’t jibe well with the loose-limbed casualness of just about everything else that the story includes and raises.
But that’s a small, fleeting complaint. I don’t submit myself to much Australian TV comedy these days (and I say this as an Australian-born-and-bred) – I’ve been too scarred (i.e., bored) in the past! – but I’m glad I took a chance on Colin From Accounts. Even its ‘Hollywood ending’ works.
© Adrian Martin 9 May 2023