ABC2’s “Twentysomething” by Jennifer O’Brien

Posted on September 22, 2011


What a clever writer/performer Jess Harris is.  She had me hooked from the start of the first episode. How could I resist the opening scene’s teasing invitation to dive to the bottom of contemporary life with a fresh-faced lass who crawls across the pub floor to draw maggot eyes on a young man lying on the floor and then encourages the bouncer to drag her out … across the pub floor?

In the colourful, frenetic opening credits she’s off the floor and up on a trestle ladder and then riding her friend like a horse.  Woo-ee. I’m clearly in for a fun ride if I go along with this young woman. She’s on top and making a big mess.

Jess Harris and Josh Schmidt, the show’s creators.

The opening scenes are snappy too, and offer further enticements.

The setting is familiar (inner–suburban shared house).

The place is a post-party mess (recall of misspent youth).

There’s humour (“Who’s that?” “I can’t remember his name”; she’s obviously slept with him).

There’s Jess taking control of a sticky situation (“You’re going to answer the door, and you’re going to apologise for all this”).

There’s a very snarky real estate agent for us to dislike, to act as a foil for the messy lives of the twentysomethings we’ve met so far, and to leave an eviction notice which will move the narrative to the next stage.

And there’s the beginning of real life: Jess and Josh have to go to work (“We work, you know”). He’s a dish pig; she’s a waitress.

There are no surprises in the workplace. Jess is late and unapologetic; she’s intolerant of customer rudeness; she sneaks a smoke out the back and pulls the pin when her employer challenges her. Josh gets the sack for vomiting over the washing up. And later, when Jess manages to snare a position in the city, it takes her but a horrified moment to realise that real effort is required and to flee her prison-like surroundings.

Twentysomething plays as a realistic view of the life of Jess, Josh and their twentysomething friends. The storytelling is economical. Every situation is used to show more of Jess and Josh and their relationship or to reinforce what we already know. The pace is swift; there are no wasted moments. To a viewer whose twenties were long ago and who lives far from St Kilda, there is an air of authenticity that makes it possible to view it like a slick, well-edited documentary.

From the start Jess is the initiator, the force. She makes her mark wherever she goes. Across a range of settings she plays to her strengths, falls to her weaknesses, pulls out triumph from disaster. She’s out of her depth but refusing to give an inch. She’s admirable but infuriating. She’s a mess of contradictions, like most of us, but bolder, more adventurous. More ruthless. Jess is immensely likeable, but shocking too.

Jess, washing a dog (you’ve got to watch to know why!)

Jess and Josh’s garage sale is a case-in-point. Hard partying and refusal to care for the rental property leads to eviction. They have to move on but have nowhere to go and nowhere to store their things. The solution? An unsentimental culling of personal effects (Josh’s childhood photos are burned; Jess’ worry dolls are to be sold) followed by a garage sale. Posters are swiftly stuck onto lamp posts; a missing dog notice is covered over. With Jess out the front, megaphone in hand issuing instructions to Josh, an amazing amount of junk is shifted. Jess refuses to give a discount to a pensioner; sells back to her old boyfriend Billy the presents he gave her. There is the occasional flicker of acknowledgement that she is going too far, particularly in her dealings with Billy, but she moves on.

So what’s appeal? At first glance, I’m not the target audience. I’m way too old …. And yet ….

I found myself watching Twentysomething as if it were a window into a magical world, where the characters perform their lives of sex, fun and drinking, irresponsible still in their mid-twenties. It’s the life of an occasionally employed, strong-minded, very cool young woman with an astonishing capacity to lie, to order, and a wardrobe to die for. Perhaps it’s a clever technique: ensure that viewers are so entranced by the range of gorgeous frocks worn by the heroine that they are willing to return for further episodes to find out whether she has enough little dresses to wear a different one for every occasion.

Unlike practically everything else I watch, I get a powerful feeling of times past and lost youth and missed opportunities; nostalgia for life as it once was and for life as it never was. Because, after all, at 25 (which is the age I calculate Jess to be) I had a uni degree, a teaching diploma and 4 years experience of teaching at one of the biggest, most remote and toughest high schools in New South Wales. And before I was 26 I was married, pregnant, a mother and living in a small mining town in Western Australia.

Josh’s A-Frame Adverstising.

Besides, the episode is studded with gems: a supercilious yummy mummy is cut to size with a few strokes. An awkward meeting with the girl from school who has a proper job and real estate shows both what Jess is running from and what she’s missing. A bemused recruitment agent listens as Jess lists her bold but unrealistic requirements of an employer: there’s a lot she doesn’t know. There’s a wonderful moment when she assures prospective buyers of a Balinese ornament that it’s solid “They thought I had cocaine in there”.

There are a lot of questions raised by this episode. And that is part of the charm and the cleverness. Take Jess’s personal philosophy “You’ve got to be ruthless. Show them who’s boss. Otherwise they walk over you” Can she really mean this? Is there a softer Jess inside? Is she covering something up?

I’m willing to suspend my disapproval of Jess’s amorality because she seems to be that fascinating character, a charming rogue; normally a male type, but the appeal is that here we have a young woman who looks as if she’s going to be outrageous and very watchable. There’s also the fascination of waiting to see if her risky behaviour catches up with her, and whether learning from experience is part of the deal.

“Twentysomething” intertitle.

I want to get to know Jess better and to find out what’s going to happen to her.  Will the series be constructed around Jess coming up with madcap ways of earning a living with Josh tagging along, Jess falling into and out of trouble resulting from her recklessness? That will be a lot of fun, but unrewarding in the end. Or will she start to have more insight into her behaviour and slow down, becoming more conventional? I’ve watched two episodes now and I still don’t know the answers; but do they matter? Is that the point about a show about twentysomethings? Nothing much matters?

Twentysomething airs on Tuesdays at 9 pm on ABC2. You can also watch the show on ABC’s iViewCheck it out, if only to covet Jess Harris’s fabulous red hair and fabulous yellow gumboots. 

For something else related to Australian television, check out Newstainment…Awkward. For more on television, have a gander at Texas Fo’ever: “Friday Night Lights”

Posted in: Television