It has been said that we are currently experiencing a golden age in television. American network HBO and streaming service Netflix are two organisations at the forefront of creating engaging, diverse and challenging programs such as The Wire, Orange is the New Black and Master of None.
In Australia, where networks are mostly loathe to invest in local productions, Channel Nine decided to take a chance on Here Come the Habibs an absurd slapstick “comedy” (and I use that word loosely because I didn’t laugh once) that reinforces stereotypes and recycles 20-year-old gags.
Basically, a Lebanese-Australian family from Lakemba wins the lottery and move to the expensive suburb of Vaucluse. Their neighbours are the O’Neill’s - wealthy, white and prejudiced.
What ensues is a garbled mess of television that feels like it belongs in the 70’s…
Is the show actually making fun of rich white people?
It’s true. I’ve been against this show from the start. Before it aired, I started a petition to get it pulled off the air and wrote this piece about why I found the premise to be offensive. Then followed it up with a list of the things I really hoped not to see in Here Come the Habibs.
Many people, including the creators, leapt to the show’s defence, imploring the public to give it a chance. We’d eventually see that the show is actually about making fun of rich WASPs and promoting multiculturalism. And to some extent, they’re right - there are a number of gags that point out how the wealthy, white people are elitist and racist. But it’s at the expense of the caricaturish Lebanese-Australian family that moved in next door. If the goal was to promote acceptance, wouldn’t it be better if the Habibs were more “normal”? (And if the goal was comedy, wouldn’t it have been better not to resurrect The Beverly Hillbillies?)
Meet the Habibs
The Habibs are led by the patriarch Fou Fou, a slovenly, monobrowed, singlet-wearing man who “builds carports for cash” and has a few dodgy compo claims under his belt. His wife Mariam is a well-dressed, overbearing mother. Toufic is the weight pumping, misogynistic, stupid son; Layla is the superficial daughter who is meant to be in high school, but looks like she’s in her mid-twenties; the other son, Elias, is the other son and the only character in the family resembling anything normal at all. Otherwise, the Habibs are loud and brash and speak with an accent the Lebanese in the Western suburbs supposedly have. Their sidekicks are cab driver Mustafa and their cousin whose nickname translates to “Donkey”.
Take THAT, refugees!
The opening scene has Fou Fou rowing up to a sandy shore, getting on his hands and knees and kissing the sand - an obvious and tasteless reference to boat people and refugees. If there’s a joke that’s ill-timed (if indeed you would ever make such a joke), it’s about the plight of refugees, like those currently suffering in detention all over the country and in Nauru - not to mention on the shores of the Mediterranean.
This is swiftly followed by the entrance of the whole family, with Toufic carrying what appears to be a massive missile (but is actually a shisha pipe). The neighbours are horrified (as anyone would be!) and all of it plays out to the score of generic Arabic music and high pitched “li-li-li-liiiiiiii”’s.
You want stereotypes? We’ve got ‘em!
In one of the opening scenes, Mustafa is carrying something for Fou Fou and says “Let me be your mule, you know I have a life debt to you, you saved my life… my grandfather was once saved by a goat and he owed the animal for the rest of his life.”
Later in the show Fou Fou takes a metal cutter to the fence adjoining his property with the O’Neills – portraying the typical aggressive Arab.
The first episode is littered with references to cash deals and “dodgy compo claims” along with allusions to Lebanese people being freeloaders.
Toufic actually says “siiiiiiick!” and “fully!” And the family are apparently so uncultured they don’t even know what sushi is.
Hey! Can’t you take a joke?
Sure. But here’s the problem with humour that’s driven by stereotypes - it marginalizes people. What are the repercussions of making fun of white people? Will they suffer racism on the streets? Lose opportunities for jobs? No.
But when you make fun of a group of people who have experienced racism by keeping the stereotypes going (instead of, say, allowing Lebanese to play doctors or lawyers), those people experience real consequences such as further victimisation and racial profiling. So it’s not a laughing matter for the targets of these gags - we’re being laughed at, not with.
I thought you wanted diversity. Well, here it is…
Our screens should reflect the diversity on our streets, but they don’t. Instead, we still predominantly see white faces on TV and where there are people of colour, they're usually fulfilling some racist stereotype. There is not a single major, positive Middle Eastern character on Australian television - we are only represented in the most negative of ways.
Here Come the Habibs doesn’t challenge any of those stereotypes or ideas - instead it uses them for cheap shots and ugly jokes. If the only way we’re going to see Lebanese-Australian faces on television is to reinforce racist tropes, then that’s not diversity, that’s prejudice.
What about the rest of the show?
Well, the writing feels lazy and there isn’t an original line or thought in the show. The performances on the whole are stilted and awkward at times - which can be attributed to lines so bad they’re hard to deliver convincingly. The “plot” (ha!) is so loose it’s hard to stay engaged - in fact I felt my attention wandering throughout the episode. I’ll be surprised if this show makes it to the end of the season.
If this is the best we can do, we are a long way from a ‘golden age in television’ in Australia.