Comedy is not supposed to travel well. It’s perhaps for that reason that, at a moment when world television is more accessible than ever to American audiences, the international shows garnering much of the attention have been dramas (the cinematic German detective drama Babylon Berlin, for instance, or the gripping Israeli thriller Fauda). But two can’t-miss series from abroad demonstrate that comedy isn’t always lost in translation from one language or culture to another. The priceless Australian workplace satire Dreamland and the endearing French showbiz-industry comedy Call My Agent! parlay contemporary social foibles into plotlines that are both telling and hilarious.
Now airing on a number of local public-television stations around the country, distributed by American Public Television, Dreamland is a side-splitting spoof of 9-to-5 culture. The setting is the (fictional) Nation Building Authority, an Australian government organization focused on major infrastructure projects. As the down-to-earth Tony (Rob Sitch) and Nat (Celia Pacquola) strive to complete container terminals, highway-upgrade projects, and other essential public works, their time and energy are regularly siphoned off by the harebrained schemes of their bosses, Jim (Anthony Lehmann) and Rhonda (Kitty Flanagan). Trendy office practices—wellness programs, safety audits, muffin platters, a morale-building employee talent show—keep getting in the way of real work.
Dreamland (titled Utopia in Australia) benefits from terrific pacing: each comic moment works well in part because it gets brisk, matter-of-fact framing for just a fleeting moment before the story moves on. The humor also benefits from grounding in a real phenomenon: the business world’s veneration of spin and branding. Again and again, the series shows us Tony and Nat’s common sense colliding with, and losing to, the rash, buzz-generating initiatives proposed by Jim and Rhonda.
In one episode, the bosses insist on reannouncing a high-speed rail project that experts have pronounced unviable. Their naysaying does not deter Rhonda: 95 percent of Australians approve of the fast-train idea, she says. As for the other 5 percent, who are they? “Engineers, economists, experts in transport logistics…” Tony ventures. “The lunatic fringe!” Rhonda retorts. “Real people love it!”