Muse by Craig Ranapia

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TV Review: Good Gods Almighty!

The Almighty Johnsons (Three, Mondays, 9.30; repeated Sundays, 10.30pm) 

If you thought Cheryl West's splendidly dysfunctional brood were screwed up, say hello to the Johnson Boys -- the kind of immigrants you hope would give Winston Peters an aneurysm and put him out of our misery.

I don't actually remember much of my twenty-first birthday, but it has nothing on poor Axl (played by a sweetly clueless Emmett Skilton). He just wants to mark his majority by getting pissed and at least trying to get his end away.  Instead, he ends up naked in the woods, as his brothers throw swords at him and the stressed out bald hairdresser with the Nigella fetish from the MySky ads chunters away. What the frig is going on?  Why are various hot chicks trying to kill him? Is the Waitamata Harbour turning to blood, a culturally insensitive viral marketing stunt and an awkward encounter with his sister-in-law in an en suite portents of things to come? And how stupid do you have to be not to notice when a delectable Keisha Castle-Hughes is totally hot for you?

All these questions and more will be answered, I hope, in the latest creation from James Griffin and Rachel Lang. The log-line from the website of production company is pushing all the right buttons with me:

The Almighty Johnsons are superheroes, but they aren’t like those flashy cartoon superheroes. They are typical Kiwi blokes who don’t much like to stand out from the crowd.  And everyday gods have everyday struggles - striving to love stroppy women, overcoming sibling rivalry and fulfilling your God-like destiny, all while still finding the time to enjoy a few beers with your mates.

Or put another way, you can take the (sorta) demi-Gods out of Asgard - to West Auckland via Norsewood -, but you can't take Asgard out of the demi-Gods.  Griffin and Lang have obviously been reading their Neil Gaiman - and I hope you have too - but The Almighty Johnsons is no more "Heroes with bogans" than the equally fun Misfits (which got buried on C4 last year, and is worth catching on DVD) deserved the awful marketing tag "Heroes with ASBOs".

First, anyone who's expecting slick visual FX and crotch-throtting spandex will be disappointed.  Instead, 'It's Kind of A Birthday Present' (writer Griffin, producer Simon Bennett and director Mark Beesley headline behind the scenes) set up the premise and characters with admirable economy.  Yes, there's a certain amount of point and recite exposition, but since we're discovering it all with Axl - and Griffin hasn't lost his touch for snappy, quotable dialogue - even that is relatively painless. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, there's also a lot of pipe laying for the nine episodes to come.

Of course, a cute high concept is only one tenth of a watchable show - and there are moments where The Almighty Johnsons cheerfully flirts with absurdity, but - like Outrageous Fortune before it - it's anchored by a cast who get the best way to play farce is drop dead straight. Skilton, Tim Balme (who's also part of the writing team and is the Johnsons' Cheryl), Dean O'Gorman (having way too much fun as PR scum with the gift of the gab and the bitchiest straight man on television), Jared Turner (cold fish, literally) and Ben Barrington (whose oracular abilities and great skin for a ninety year-old aren't all down to the 'shrooms) play nicely off each other.  They may well be Norse Gods -- even though their powers are kind of shit since that Jesus bastard started getting all the attention back in the homelands -- but family isn't a word, it's a life sentence.

James Griffin has said that the idea was to make a show about "being a bloke", but I hope the women in the cast - Castle-Hughes' bemused flattie/potential love interest, and Roz Turnbull as Balme's mortal wife get more screen time.  After all, anyone familiar with Norse myths will know the ladies could be pretty formidable as well.

But that's quibbling, the production design, photography and evocative music are on the money.  We end the pilot with a moment of family bonding over a quest. For a woman. ("Who the frig is Frigg?" "Odin's beloved, 'til they kinda split up back in Asgard. Rooting around, fault on both sides.") I can see that working out without tears and blood stains before bedtime.

My big concern -- and one that producer Simon Bennett reasonably voices here -- is that people are going to say "fantasy, meh..." Genre snobbery is real, otherwise the producers of Lost wouldn't have contorted themselves to avoid saying the S- or F-words (that's "science fiction" or "fantasy" to you) anywhere other than San Diego Comic Con.

But are Kiwi audiences really not ready for prime-time fantasy for grown-ups, with a local accent?  I'm optimistic that we are - The Vintner's Luck is still one of the biggest-selling contemporary New Zealand novels despite the presence of an angel.  And a certain film-maker I promised never to mention here also pulled off the delicate balancing between fantasy and reality long before he reached Middle Earth.  Your mileage may vary, but Heavenly Creatures  is still high on my list of great New Zealand films.

And anyone who thinks fantasy is just dwarves in tights, running around with letter-openers and sprouting gibberish really need some quality time with our own Elizabeth Knox, Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee -- for a start.

Perhaps I'm biased having Doctor Who and original recipie Star Trek imprinted on my tele-DNA at an early age, but Outrageous Fortune and Go Girls (which returns to Two tonight, at 8.30) aren't exactly kitchen sink neo-realism either.  What they both do is tell well-crafted stories about people worth the time and attention.

And by that standard - the only one that really matters - even if you're bored with the Rings, send the kids to bed and get some old time religion.

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