As the second season of SBS comedy The Family Law approaches, creator Benjamin Law has the approval of his family, despite mining their experiences with affectionate mocking.
“As soon as they read the scripts for Series 1 they just got it immediately. They were completely on board to the point where they have made cameo appearances in both series. My parents have been casual language consultants on both seasons,” he says.
“Both ‘fake’ and real families hang out together where we can!”
Yet while cast members, including Fiona Choi as mum Jenny, have strong Australian accents, Law is comfy that exaggerating any accents as Asian-Australian doesn’t make them guilty of reinforcing stereotypes.
“Fiona has a proper Australian accent but the character is a Chinese-Malaysian who migrated here as an adult. So they will have an accent like my mum does.
“I don’t understand how someone with an accent is a stereotype. A character is only a stereotype if they are 2 dimensional. 1 in 5 Australians speak languages other than English at home, so a lot of them will have accents. We don’t necessarily hear them on television very often,” Law explains.
“So if that’s all they are reduced to –a person with an accent and that’s where all their comedy comes from- then sure they will be stereotype.
“But I don’t think Anthony who plays the dad, Danny, or Fiona’s character as mum Jenny, could be construed as a stereotype at all. They’ve got rich, complex, complicated lives on screen –and they’re at the centre of the story.
“Hopefully we’re past ‘yellow-face.’”
“I was always slightly power-hungry!”
So far the critics agree Law is onto a winner. The Family Law won the Ensemble Award at the Equity Awards plus the Comedy award at the Screen Producers Award, alongside AACTA and ADG nominations.
Trystan Go portrays a fictionalised young Law on screen, based on his autobiography. The series carefully plays with truth and reality, including in the first episode of the new season where ‘Ben’ runs for election as middle school captain
“I was always slightly power-hungry!” Law laughs. “But it’s not based completely on one incident. What we wanted to do was distil that feeling that I think every kid had, where you are deeply embarrassed by your parents.
“In Series One Ben and Jenny are the closest of allies. In this series Ben is growing up, so we wanted to see what it looks like when you become a teenager and you become a bit of a shit to your parents? They mean well but there is a generational clash. A parent is over-whelming because of their ‘clinginess’ and over-investment in your life.
“So that is braided into real things that did happen in my life, but we heighten it to get into universal experiences.”
Also blurring the lines for effect is the era that serves as the series backdrop. While Law grew up on the Sunshine Coast in the 1980s, Family Law is set in the present day.
“We have put in an aesthetic that could be ‘any time’ but at the same time they are using mobile phones, computers. We didn’t want to make a museum-piece. But we didn’t want to be telling the audience that everything you see happened in real life, in Benjamin Law’s life,” he continues.
“It’s comedy so we’re trying to play emotional truth about divorce, family, being Chinese-Australian –rather than have a documentary approach to what did and didn’t happen.”
“We wanted Ben’s sexuality to be known”
But while Law’s own gay sexuality is widely documented in his literary and advocacy work, for 14 year old ‘Ben’ it’s part of his adolescence without overtaking storylines.
“We wanted Ben’s sexuality to be known. We weren’t going to hide that from the audience, and they are a few steps ahead of him in a way. But we flagged in episode 1 or 2 that this kid is gay. He’s got every chance to spy on his hot female neighbour but his telescope goes to the hot male neighbour instead,” Law explains.
“But we also knew him being gay wasn’t going to be the plot of the first series. Just as the ethnic background of the Laws isn’t the plot of the show.
In Series 2 there are more hints and reminders that it’s something in Ben’s life, but we’re playing with it. There are other narrative threads we want to deal with before we necessarily make his sexuality a storyline.
“He loves Broadways shows, I think we know where this is going –but Ben’s probably not aware of it yet.”
“Brisbane isn’t really the centre of film and TV”
Law was an associate producer on the Deep Water documentary for SBS and is writing for upcoming ten series Sisters. He penned the scripts for his comedy with Marieke Hardy (S1) and Kirsty Fisher & Lawrence Leung (S2). How did he make the transition from author to screenwriter?
“Brisbane isn’t really the centre of film and TV, so I was happily trailing along until the book got picked up by Matchbox Pictures and we started developing it as a team. Even though I hadn’t worked in television professionally, I had the basics.
“So the first season was a huge learning curve but I kind of already had some University training.
“Sometimes when you work on a show which is predominantly ‘non-white’ faces, you wonder if it will be a niche audience. But The Family Law has proven Australians want to see shows that look like their neighbourhood as well, with people that they know and look like them.”
The Family Law returns with a double episode 8:30pm Thursday on SBS.