Publishing • Production • Communications
  • Grant McLachlan

NZ in 800 Words


If self-deprecating is a noble trait, then the new TV series 800 Words is subliminal genius.

The team at South Pacific Pictures have eloquently encapsulated the trans-Tasman relationship in its first season that has just completely in Australia and has just started here.

That scheduling is no coincidence. If Australia’s 7 network and TVNZ ran the series simultaneously, I suspect that the audience reaction would be quite different.

The series has consistently rated top of its lucrative prime time slot and I have no doubt that will be replicated here. Already, 7 has picked it up for a second season.

Beyond the fish-out-of-water cliché, 800 Words is about how Australians see us and how we want to see ourselves. What starts in stereotypical culture clash fashion unravels to reveal the Kiwi charm.

The unravelling combines flagrant and subtle nuances that resonate with both audiences. It’s got the Kiwi conman, dodgy builders, Maori recalcitrance, the ‘inbred’ hierarchy who run the town, and the Kiwi chicks who fall for anything with a foreign accent. More subtly, it confronts our bullying and condoning culture.

Kiwi culture often seeks external validity. We habitually see ourselves how others see us.

John Oliver’s ridicule of John Key receives more coverage in New Zealand than it does globally. But Key relishes it. His photo album is full of photo-ops with foreign leaders to boost his image.

Other politicians use foreign media for their own aims. If an issue doesn’t get coverage here, get an Aussie to mock us over there.

Wrapping the kiwi culture in the insular shell of a fictional town called Weld not only fits Aussie preconceptions but the microcosm makes our culture easier to digest. Like a control experiment, add a few ingredients – like an Aussie widower and his teenagers – and see if anything rubs off.

The clever way that 800 Words evolves through the series is that bits do rub off in unexpected ways.

Whilst the locals start to challenge their unnatural order, the protagonist has a greater appreciation of his identity when ‘dickhead Aussies’ antagonize his new way of live. Big and little brother rivalry morphs into the brothers-in-arms ANZAC spirit.

And then there’s the storyline. To fully grasp the layers interwoven amid the periphery, I expect many viewers to watch the series again and pause to see finer details, such as the News of the Weld articles.

Many can identify people and stories similar to those portrayed. It challenges our perceptions and potentially influences our attitudes and misconceptions.

If this series ran simultaneously trans-Tasman, Kiwis would instantly be on the defensive and be in denial. Instead, Australians have already watched it, got it, moved on, and want more next year.

Meanwhile, Kiwis can introspectively analyse its insinuations.

I will never look at Warkworth the same again – and not just because that is where many scenes were shot.

800 Words is very much more than that if you read between the lines. I really haven’t done it justice with 500 words (exactly).

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