Biting Hamster puts media in its place

The Chaser: Hamster Wheel
Wednesdays, 9.05pm, ABC1

What's it all about?

The Chaser team focusing their satirical laser on the rigmarole of the Australian media and the way it covers and shapes politics and society.

This is a leaner and meaner Chaser, basing its attack less around public stunts and ambushes and more on substantial exposure of the absurdities and idiocies of the media.

In particular, Hamster Wheel makes great use of the tactic of letting journalists and commentators hoist themselves with their own petard. Last night's episode let loose at, among other targets, media hysteria over "offensive" jokes, news programs' obsessive use of the phrase “name and shame”, reporter gimmicks, ABC history, and the coverage of women in the media. Not as likely to provoke nationwide outrage, but more likely to make a good point.

Our view

Towards the end of the once all-conquering and controversial War on Everything, the Chaser seemed to run out of steam: it looked like the boys were tired of accosting politicians, tired of sparking calls for their sacking, and tired of being called “boys”. But having recharged their batteries, they returned with a show that was a lot more genuinely satirical, and chose its victims with greater precision.

The first season of Hamster Wheel was exciting in the way it confronted the banality and cliche of the mainstream media head-on, but in the second season the show has been both blessed and cursed with perhaps a richer seam of material than the team could have imagined. Blessed because the job of skewering the media has been made so easy; cursed because the risk is always that an embarrassment of riches can make a satirist lazy.

So far this hasn't manifested itself, however: Hamster Wheel has been on-point with coverage of issues such as the Alan Jones saga, Gina Rinehart and media sexism. Funnier and more pointed than Media Watch, and more dedicated to landing punches than Mad As Hell, Hamster Wheel isn't our Daily Show, but it's the closest we've got – a rare and refreshing burst of real, honest-to-goodness domestic satire on Australian screens.

Last night's episode showcased just where the strength of the show lies – in allowing the fools and hypocrites of the media to condemn themselves with their own words, and increasingly ridiculous actions.

The opening discussion of the week's news between Craig Reucassel, Chris Taylor and Julian Morrow can feel less than dynamic, but the show quickly picked up momentum with an expose of TV news — beginning with the awkward banter between newsreaders that seems to be a prerequisite of news bulletins now, as they endeavour to convince us all that they are jolly friends having a great time reporting the events of the day — and moving on to the idiocy of reporting gimmicks.

The illustration of reporters, lacking a location to report from, setting up in places with the barest tenuous connection to the subject, was superb, showing the industry up for its silliness and lack of imagination by stringing a series of images together that, cumulatively, create a sublimely absurd indictment of the players.

The sketch comedy that Hamster Wheel engages in is less biting than the commentary, but does its job in keeping the show nimble and varied, and generating a source of laughs that is a little less likely to bring on severe rage in the viewer.

Likewise the regular segment introduced this season of faux obituaries. It feels like dangerous ground to tread on, announcing that a prominent Australian has died and playing the “standby” TV obituary that has been prepared – the first week's Gina Rinehart obit in particular felt that they were sailing close to the wind – but the silly playfulness that infuses each segment mostly overcomes the risk of mean-spiritedness.

Last night's tribute to Kevin Rudd got in a few blows using the familiar footage of his resignation speeches and sweary out-takes, but made its point without appearing too vicious (if a sketch making play with the hypothetical death of a current MP can ever really be un-vicious). A potentially problematic concept carried off with aplomb.

The show really hit its peak, though, with the final feature, where Chas Licciardello and Andrew Hansen dissect a particular media issue. Having taken on youth and social media in past weeks, last night's show took on the treatment of women in the media, and gave news, current affairs and breakfast shows a well-deserved pummelling.

The ludicrous sexism that permeates the media landscape was pilloried, manifested in antiquated attitudes, trivialisation and sometimes outright ignoring of important issues (the sequence of news programs running with a cute-puppy story ahead of an important report on military sexism a prime example) and casual remarks from male talking heads, with Karl Stefanovic and Paul Henry coming in for a flogging not for the first time.

In this segment, Chas and Andrew showed the wisdom that the Chaser has developed over the years. Their gags and asides worked well and brought big laughs, but they showed the value of restraint – most of the heavy-lifting in exposing media sexism was done by the targets themselves, and that's where the Hamster Wheel shines: handing the rope to the condemned, and giggling as they hang themselves.

In a sentence

Sharp satire that avoids the occasional excesses of the past and provides a welcome blast of honesty and cynicism to the mainstream media's phoney hypocrites.

Best bit

Easily Chas and Andrew's spin through the world of media sexism. The blatant examples from throughout the media were pieced together expertly, the Chaser pair providing expert gaggery to pull it all together.

Worst bit

The opening three-way chat feels a bit old-hat, or more specifically, old-Chaser, in contrast to the fresher vibe of the Hamster Wheel. Far from dire, but the basic set-up-punchline routine lacked energy compared with the full-frontal satirical assault the rest of the show provided. The on-air “tweets” add little either, particularly compared with the brilliant news ticker the old CNNNN used to have.

Grade

A – not perfect, but as good an example of real satire as Australia's had.

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