It's Seachange meets Rafters as Erik Thomson plays a dad starting over, with a dream that's less than perfect.
“I guess the beginning is that I’m back. I went away for a while…” George Turner explains in the opening scenes of 800 Words.
Looking direct to camera, actor Erik Thomson is widower, columnist and father of two teenagers, musing on his laptop about a turning point in his life.
His wife Laura has recently died, and he is dragging his two kids Shay (Melina Vidler) and Arlo (Benson Jack Anthony) from Sydney to the coastal town of Weld in New Zealand. George has bought his childhood holiday home sight unseen over the internet as part of a plan to start anew.
“The experts reckon some of the most stressful things in life revolve around death, buying and selling real estate, emigrating and international travel. Only an idiot would do all these things at the same time,” he tells us.
Shay is a staunch opponent of relocating to “the arse end of the world,” but as they head to the airport (if you’re clever you can even see them driving past Channel TEN’s Pyrmont building), George is determined.
Undertaking a seachange is a big part of this new Australian-NZ co-production and while the setting is gorgeous, the transition is anything other than smooth.
There’s a bingle before they arrive at their new home (cue wacky locals), the house does not reflect the online pictures and there’s a problem with the cargo with all their furniture. George is buffered from all quarters with conflict, opposition and failure, but he takes most of it in his stride. A dodgy real estate salesman (Jonathan Brugh) gets off effectively scot-free with having sold the family a lemon. As a writer, George could sure do with some solicitor pals.
The house also comes with its own resident hindrance, “Woody” (Rick Donald), an Aussie builder and surfer supposedly doing renovations to the dilapidated house (shades of Rafters-own ‘Warney’). He quickly adopts George and wises him up on the ways of Weld.
Weld is full of offbeat locals: the town cop moonlights snapping photos for the local newspaper, the fireman is also the dodgy real estate salesman, and there are an array of colourful supporting characters and extras. As opening episodes go, it’s a veritable parade of characters.
The women of Weld, who usually get their way, seem to be short on partners and appear to set their sights on the new bloke. There’s the Boat Club manager Fiona (Michelle Langstone), the Aussie school teacher Tracey (Emma Leonard), the artist Katie (Anna Jullienne) and Hannah (Cian Elyse White).
While teenager Shay feels unwelcome at school -save for the wandering eye of local hottie Ike (Alex Tarrant)- at least Arlo finds a friend who is as equally quirky.
Amid all the opening chaos, there is the lure of the beach and it’s surf. Like a turtle returning to the water, George confesses, “The real reason we came here is because I wanna surf…. I’ve lied to my children to make it so. And that makes me the worst father in the world.”
As George Turner, Thomson reminds us of the broad appeal that served Packed to the Rafters so well. Complacent, even apologetic-George is a bit like Tony Curtis in the chaotic pie scene from The Great Race, wandering through without a speck ever landing on his white suit. At the prospect of conflict he nudges a 6 on the richter scale rather than a 10. Maybe he’s still in the grieving stage…
I’m also unclear what kind of columnist he is, sending 800 Words to his Sydney editor Jan (Bridie Carter) each week. They appear to be philosophical musings on life and the world around him -granted, this cleverly leads to battles in episode 2.
As his teens, Melina Vidler and, in particular, Benson Jack Anthony are rather good. Vidler will represent the rebellious / romantic teen while Anthony looks amply-skilled for comedic touches without over-egging things.
Meanwhile the backdrop looks poised to become a character in its own right. While it doesn’t boast the golden sands of Aussie beaches, there’s no denying the inherent drama of a New Zealand location. Escaping to this from your armchair should prove tempting to many (yes, there are those ick-ccents too).
800 Words is decidedly Seachange meets Rafters, astutely pitched at a broad audience. Writer James Griffin has set up much to explore in a lilting style without ever demanding too much of the audience. That should serve Seven perfectly well for its initial 8 episodes.
800 Words begins soon.