Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Happens in the Library, Stays in the Library

Some time back, Hulu recommended the show The Librarians to me and while I almost immediately added the show’s three seasons* to my queue, I only recently got around to watching them.

 The Librarians is a gem of a show, airing on Australian TV from 2007 to 2010, and featuring a host of hilarious situations. The sitcom revolves around the staff of the Middleton Interactive Learning Centre, a public library run by head librarian Frances O’Brien, “a Catholic bigot with a panic disorder.” In the first episode, Frances finds that her hand is forced into hiring Christine Grimwood as the children’s librarian, despite the fact that Christine is facing drug-related convictions – and that Christine is Frances’s ex-best friend from her youth. The library staff also includes Dawn McConnichie, a klutz who is dealing with being in a wheelchair after an accident at a staff retreat; Matthew Bytnskov, the library’s self-described “writer in residence” who is as pretentious as he is lovable; Ky Lee, the stereotypically effeminate gay man starting a new relationship; Nada al Farhouk, a devout Muslim who tries to counteract Frances’s racism by reaching out to the diverse community; Neil Slider, a mama’s boy and wannabe jockey who was convicted of stealing money from his postal job to bribe owners into letting him ride and now does his community service at the library where he crushes on Christine; and Lachie Davis, who struggles with dyslexia and doesn’t quite seem to grasp that Frances hired him only as eye candy.  

Some of the other regularly appearing cast includes:

- Terry, Frances’s hapless husband (played by Wayne Hope, the show’s co-writer, producer, and director);
- Frances and Terry’s four daughters (only ever heard off screen) who are out-of-control pranksters;
- Pearl, Frances’s cruelly strict mother now suffering from dementia;
- Nikko, Christine’s boyfriend convicted of dealing drugs;
- Paolo, Nikko and Christine’s shady lawyer; and
- Father Harris, a sounding board for Frances but also her foil as he is far more liberal and embracing of others than she is.

These characters show off Australia’s diverse background by representing a variety of ethnicities such as English, Irish, Malaysian, Welsh, etc. The characters are all quirky, more like caricatures than real people but somehow still endearing. This is except for Frances, who is maddeningly frustrating at times. Understandingly, it is part of the comedy for her to be so ridiculously rigid and frightened of anyone who seems to be “other” than her, but it is also an odd experience to follow a show centered on such an unattractive personality. However, it does seem that Frances grows over time and by the third season, she is a more bearable character. Also, the more her back story unfolds, the more you do develop some sympathy for her character and can understand how she justifies her own unhappy life choices by fixating on how she is the only one holding the “correct” beliefs and following the “right” path. And, it’s always extra entertaining to see her slip up and do something so antithetical to her own beliefs, like have a schoolgirl crush on Christine.

While the stories of the characters’ personal lives and how they interact with one another is the primary focus on the show, each season has an overarching plot revolving around the library. In the first season, it is the upcoming Book Week in which the premier will unveil a new governmental children’s literacy initiative; in the second season, it is the re-building and re-opening of the library after it burns down in a suspected arson; and in the third and final season, it is a government official’s demand that the library must turn a profit or face closure. The seasons themselves are short with only six episodes each in the first two seasons and eight in the final season, which allows for a tight story arc and little room for superfluous scenes or episodes just to fill space but without adding anything substantial.

Each episode begins with something inappropriate being shoved into the book return, with this object being related to that episode’s storyline in some way (i.e., a pig’s head from the local butcher shop stuck in the returns chute signals an episode in which there is concerns about racist attacks against Nada). In a few episodes, a framing device, such as Frances making a confession to Father Harris, is used to tell that week’s story. This serves to mix things up a bit, but I’m not sure how truly effective it always is. The show often makes uses of quick flashbacks, often from earlier in the day or week, to highlight a point or squeeze in another laugh. All in all, the show seems like a cross between the British/American sitcoms The Office mixed with the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas.

Unlike many sitcoms, The Librarians is very clever (not to say it doesn’t have its share of crass** and/or slapstick moments though), doesn’t rely on a laugh track for its audience to get its jokes, and is anything but predictable. That being said, in the third season in particular, there are moments that become perhaps too outrageous – for example, the OCD governmental minister’s fear of germs over the telephone, the converting of the library to a ShowBizz Video franchisee, and Terry’s The Oils Not Oils band stretch the limits somewhat. It’s certainly still enjoyable and funny, but it also feels like perhaps the show had hit a peak in the second season and couldn’t quite follow that up.

The acting, the directing, the sets, the costumes – everything about this show fits together well for a finished product that is entertaining. If you like quirky comedies, The Librarian is the show for you.

*What’s referred to as a “season” on American TV is called a “series” in Australia. You learn something new every day. (Incidentally, this show also taught me about long service leave. If only I lived in Australia…)
** There are clearly major differences in what is acceptable television fare in Australia versus the U.S. as the show is able to use profanities and cover adult topics without evasion.

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